An officer named in the Jordan Miles civil suit testified Thursday that two moments raised his suspicion enough for him to justify punching the teenager three times in the face during an encounter in Homewood four years ago.
Pittsburgh police Officer David Sisak, 38, testified that he became suspicious of Mr. Miles, now 22, when he did not feel Mr. Miles provided him with a logical explanation as to why at 11 p.m. he was spotted around a home on Tioga Street that was not his own.
The second moment, Officer Sisak said, came when Officer Michael Saldutte mentioned a gun and Officer Sisak saw Mr. Miles reach for his waistband.
"I've said all along, I believe he had a gun," Officer Sisak said.
He said when his partner mentioned a gun and Mr. Miles' hand moved toward his waistband, "My only options were to punch him or shoot him. Yeah, I punched him as hard as I could. I thought he was going to pull out a gun and shoot me."
Officer Sisak's testimony will be central to a second civil trial in which the officers are accused of false arrest and excessive force, which hinges as much on what the officers believed was happening as what actually happened.
In the first trial, eight jurors agreed to exonerate the officers on a malicious prosecution count, but could not reach agreement on excessive force and false arrest allegations, resulting in a mistrial.
Attorneys for Mr. Miles attempted to poke holes Thursday in Officer Sisak's testimony by noting that a gun was never found, that Officer Sisak could not explain how Mr. Miles could have disposed of a gun and that the officers did not call a gun dog to search the scene, although they had in at least one previous, unrelated arrest.
The attorneys similarly questioned Officer Richard Ewing, who now works in McCandless, and who also said he believes to this day that Mr. Miles had a gun, even if he never saw one.
Much of the questioning, done over the course of seven hours excluding breaks, grew contentious, with the officers repeatedly claiming that Mr. Miles' attorneys, Robert Giroux and Joel Sansone, took the words they said in previous statements under oath out of context.
Mr. Giroux focused during his questioning of Officer Sisak on a Mountain Dew bottle collected after a search of the area, during which police also found Mr. Miles' keys and wallet, in the snowy area.
Asked where the soda bottle was found, Officer Sisak, who did not search Mr. Miles himself, said, "I don't know where he had it."
"Are you telling this jury that he had a gun next to an empty Mountain Dew bottle?"
"He said it came out of his pocket," Officer Sisak said. "I'm telling you that night that I believe he had a gun on him."
"Because you agree that if he didn't have a gun on him that night would be excessive force?"
The defense objected and the judge sustained their complaint.
Officer Sisak also testified that he lost several items during the chaos of that night and not all of them were recovered.
Mr. Sansone questioned Officer Ewing, who remained on the stand when the trial ended for the day, and focused on the fact that Pittsburgh police did not send a gun dog to search the area where Mr. Miles tussled with officers.
"I never asked for a K-9," Officer Ewing said, adding that would have been the responsibility of his supervisors, with whom he met briefly that night but spoke mostly about a knee injury Officer Sisak said he sustained when Mr. Miles kicked him.
Mr. Sansone asked why they did not call for the assistance of a drug dog when they had for an unrelated arrest only a short time before.
"If I would have seen the physical gun then yes," Officer Ewing said he would have called for a gun dog.
Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published March 13, 2014 11:47 AM