City officers practice the art of spotting firearms

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Working in plainclothes under cover of darkness, they prowl some of Pittsburgh's meanest streets night after night, scouting for telltale signs.

It could be a tug at the waist or a hoisting of the pants. It could be an odd look they get, or a driver's furtive movement.

"They're thinking about what they're gonna do. Sometimes you'll see this," said Pittsburgh police Officer Philip Mercurio Jr., folding himself at the waist as he imitates a driver stashing something below a seat. "Their head goes down and comes back up. So we'll go up and ask them, 'What did you put under the seat?'"

"Nothing," the quarry might respond.

"Well," Mercurio said, "now they're lying."

If their hunches pan out, what Mercurio and his fellow officer, Robert Kavals, will find under the seat -- or tucked in the waistband, or buried in the pants pocket, or tossed aside while someone is running away -- are illegal firearms of all shapes and sizes, makes and models.

Their ability to be in the right place at the right time has put the duo on the scene of two recent homicides, resulting in quick arrests.

It has also put Mercurio and Kavals at the top of last year's list for gun seizures on the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police's 900-member force, with 39 and 34 arrests for violations of the Uniform Firearms Act, respectively. Their third partner, Robert Pires, came in fourth with 28 guns seized.

Mercurio and Kavals were recognized with numerous awards for their work in 2002, when they also led the department in gun seizures. All three were named officers of the month for November 2002.

"They're exceptional," Deputy Chief William Mullen said. "If we could develop their talent in other police officers, we'd be a better police force."

Gun seizures increase

With the federal government spending $500 million nationally to reduce gun violence with the Project Safe Neighborhoods program, getting illegal firearms off the streets is a top priority for Pittsburgh police.

Last year, the force collected 1,709 guns, down 8 percent from 1,862 guns the year before.

That's not a telling figure when it comes to crime, though, because it includes abandoned guns, guns recovered from suicide victims and firearms turned over by targets of protection-from-abuse orders.

The real statistic to look at, Mullen said, is the number of violations of the state's Uniform Firearms Act, which mostly entail people concealing handguns without a permit.

Last year set a record for the four years the bureau has tracked the statistic. In making gun arrests, officers seized 472 firearms -- mostly handguns and sawed-off shotguns -- compared with 401 in 2002, an 18 percent increase.

"I'm sure some of those guns would've been used in a shooting," Mullen said. "These are the guns people carry to protect themselves during drug deals, during robberies and when disputes can't be solved in any other way."

Mercurio, Kavals and Pires spend their shifts riding in an unmarked car through Homewood and adjacent East End neighborhoods.

In police parlance, their vehicle is known as a "99" car, a rover manned by patrol officers in plainclothes. They are usually a zone's best officers: aggressive, intelligent and self-starting.

In the early 1990s, Mullen helped launch the "99" car program -- so named because the number was one of the few call signs left unclaimed -- to focus on high-crime areas. Officers stay within their precinct's boundaries, but are not responsible for answering most 911 calls.

That luxury allows them to zero in on their goal: to rid their zone of guns and drugs and the runners and couriers who supply them.

"I think a lot of it is opportunity," Kavals said. "We won't get radio calls unless it's 'shots fired,' or 'man with a gun.'"

"We pick and choose what we go to," Mercurio said. "Plus, we work Zone 5 [the East Liberty station] at night, so it's a target-rich environment for 'man with gun.'"

Staying alert, taking chances

Kavals, 34, stands 6-6 and has sleepy eyes. He calls himself a "country boy" from Beaver County. He is a former Air Force policeman and a crack shot. He has a good head for names and addresses, which helps when trying to keep track of a large cast of informants and suspects.

Kavals, in his seventh year, is the trio's junior member in seniority. His supervisor, Lt. William Mathias, said the time Kavals has worked out of the East Liberty station is worth twice that amount of experience anywhere else in the city.

"He's like the Energizer Bunny," Mathias said of Kavals. "He never stops."

Mercurio, 36, is a former K-9 officer with an alert look behind his glasses that gives the impression of someone with eyes in the back of his head. He carved out a reputation for hunting down stolen vehicles when he worked out of the Hill District station. Mathias praised him as one of the city's top officers.

In July 2002, Mercurio and Kavals had a Garfield restaurant under surveillance when they witnessed two gunmen shoot and kill James Adams, 20. They helped catch the suspects, who are on trial.

Mercurio was one of two uniformed off-duty officers working security in the Strip District in July 2000 who shot Michael Platt to death after Platt fired into a crowd, killing Patrick Moore, 29, of Allentown. The shooting was ruled justified.

Pires, 48, a hulking 21-year veteran with a wealth of experience in narcotics cases, rounds out the group. He knows the players, their associations and the history of the local drug trade. Zone 5 Cmdr. RaShall Brackney, their boss, said they represent a good blend of age, experience and strengths.

"The thing they do better than anybody is they're always out there. They're always alert, they're always looking for something to happen. They take that additional risk to stop somebody on the street who's doing something suspicious," Brackney said. "Their shift doesn't end at the end of the day. They're usually developing confidential informants way past their shift."

That includes handing out their cell phone numbers whenever needed -- on the streets or to witnesses who testify in court -- so they can be notified directly if trouble is brewing and respond immediately.

From calm to mayhem

Faced regularly with tense, dangerous situations, the three officers agreed early in their partnership that apprehending the criminal comes first, even if it means splitting up to give chase. As a result, sometimes they go after suspects alone and without backup in the area.

"Pretty much," Kavals said, "we just have each other."

"It's not that you can't rely on anyone else. It's going to be over before anybody gets there," explained Mercurio.

"Because they're so proactive, nine times out of 10 they're going to find themselves in situations where they're in the middle of it before the 911 call comes out," Brackney said.

Around midnight on Dec. 28, when 26-year-old Ivan Peguese was slain in Homewood, Mercurio and Kavals were on patrol when they heard 30 to 40 shots.

Mercurio was on his cell phone at the time talking to another officer.

"I gotta go," Mercurio said and hung up.

Within 20 seconds, Mercurio estimated, the pair were chasing three armed suspects up an alley. Mercurio ended up tailing Silas Joseph Adams on foot, while Kavals followed him in a car. Another 10 seconds later, Mercurio said, Adams was cracking off shots at Kavals' car from an assault rifle.

Officers eventually caught Adams and recovered an AK-47, known on the street as a "chopper." Adams is awaiting trial on a charge of criminal homicide.

"All within 30 seconds, from complete calm to mayhem," Mercurio said.

Body language

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives runs a course for law enforcement called "Characteristics of Armed Gunmen."

In promotional materials for the seminar, the ATF states: "The difference between the charges of 'carrying a concealed weapon' and 'homicide' is about two seconds -- the time it takes to draw and shoot an illegally carried weapon."

The agency pledges to help officers "recover more crime guns" and "increase your personal margin of safety."

Kavals has been through the course. He believes training is helpful. Mercurio, though, trusts primarily in his instincts.

"You either got it or you don't," Mercurio said.

In looking people over, the officers read body language. Often, those carrying illegally concealed firearms don't have holsters, so they carry guns in their pockets or waistbands. They continually adjust their pants or touch their weapon.

"It's almost like a security thing," Kavals said. "They touch it just to make sure it's there."

Sometimes the tipoff will be a car that doesn't stop for the officers right away. Sometimes a person they are trying to speak with on the street backs up nervously.

In some cases, when Mercurio and Kavals approach, a suspect will simply throw down a gun and run away.

To some of their adversaries, the cat-and-mouse pursuit is almost a game, Kavals said. In a conversation with one potential lawbreaker, "he's even told us, 'If I'm running away from you and we get knocked around a little bit, don't take it personally.' "

Mercurio and Kavals might not, but they hardly consider their job a game. They view themselves as the last defense for citizens afflicted by urban thugs.

"If they can intimidate the police, who's gonna stand in their way?" Mercurio said.

Kavals agreed.

"Young guys totally take over the streets. They take over people's homes. If we're afraid, there is nobody to help them," Kavals said. "I like to make them fear us the way they make people fear them."


Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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