By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The girlfriend of an unarmed black man shot dead by a police officer in a housing project's dark stairwell notified New York City on Thursday that she plans to file a $50 million lawsuit over his death.
The fatal shooting of Akai Gurley, 28, in Brooklyn in November was among a string of incidents that fueled widespread protests over what critics say is a pattern of lethal police misconduct toward minority groups.
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Scott Rynecki, the lawyer representing Gurley’s girlfriend, Kimberly Ballinger, and their 2-year-old daughter, said Officer Peter Liang acted "recklessly" both in drawing his gun while patrolling the project known as the Pink Houses and in firing the fatal shot.
"An officer has to be able to justify having his weapon out and in his hands," Rynecki said. "We think there was no justification."
Police have said Liang may have accidentally discharged his gun. The Brooklyn district attorney is investigating the shooting for possible criminal charges.
Gurley's funeral was held in December amid angry demonstrations in New York City days after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, in the chokehold death of another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, on Staten Island.
The New York grand jury acted less than two weeks after a Missouri grand jury also decided not to file charges against a white policeman for the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in a St. Louis suburb, sparking prolonged unrest there.
Ballinger filed a notice of claim seeking $50 million in damages against Liang, his partner, the city and the police department, according to Rynecki. She also filed a separate negligence claim against the city's housing authority, arguing that the stairwell in which Gurley was shot had inadequate lighting that contributed to the incident.
The city comptroller's office, which handles notices of claim, did not immediately confirm receipt of the document.
Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city's law department, said: "This was a tragic incident, and the city will review the claim."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Mohammad Zargham)