SWAT honored for shootout actions

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On April 4, police Sgt. Sam Todd was finishing a training session in Texas when he discovered that he had 25 voice mail messages, all asking about a gun battle in Pittsburgh.

The calls came from emergency response officers from across the country who wanted to know what had happened to the city's nationally renowned SWAT team and what, if anything, they could do to help.

Sgt. Todd, president of the Ohio Tactical Officers Association and a police officer in Kent, gathered the facts: three Pittsburgh officers were dead, and a gunman had fired nearly 800 rounds of ammunition during a 40-minute shootout.

But Pittsburgh SWAT members had contained the bloodshed. The alleged shooter, 22-year-old Richard Poplawski, had surrendered.

"The firefight would rival stuff that goes on in the military," Sgt. Todd said last week. "The fact that they stood in there and did the best they could to get the guy arrested -- there aren't too many guys, even in this line of work, who would do that."

The team's actions have won praise throughout the close-knit community of officers who focus on SWAT, or "Special Weapons And Tactics."

On Thursday, the Pittsburgh team will receive a valor award in Tulsa, Okla., at the annual gathering of the National Tactical Officers Association.

"The citizens of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh police department should be very proud," said John Gnagey, executive director of the NTOA, which sets standards and conducts training for SWAT officers and counts more than 1,600 teams as members.

Pittsburgh officers Teddy Anderson, Stephen Mescan and Ronald Yosi will attend the Tulsa event.

Cmdr. Scott Schubert, who oversees the city SWAT unit, has a central role in G-20 planning and cannot make the trip.

"It's very bittersweet," he said of the valor award. "We're honored that they're being recognized for what they do. But we wish the whole incident had never happened."

Sgt. Todd, a member of a regional SWAT team in Ohio, has worked closely with Pittsburgh tactical officers. He nominated the team for the award.

The nomination contains a narrative of the events of April 4, when Officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly were killed.

According to police, Mr. Poplawski shot Officers Sciullo and Mayhle when they responded to a 911 call at the Fairfield Street home in Stanton Heights where he lived with his mother. The gunman then shot Officer Kelly as he arrived to help his fellow officers.

Officer Timothy McManaway was wounded in the hand.

Officer Mescan was the first SWAT officer to reach the scene that morning. He and Deputy Police Chief Paul Donaldson, who lives nearby and came directly from his home, decided to rig a police van with bulletproof vests.

They and other officers then drove up to the Poplawski house and pulled Officers Kelly and McManaway into the back of the vehicle.

Officer Kelly would later die at UPMC Presbyterian.

Other SWAT members quickly arrived at the shooting scene, including some who came in the "Bear," the team's heavily armored truck. That armor quickly proved critical. As the truck moved in front of the house, it encountered "a barrage of high-powered rifle fire," according to the NTOA award nomination.

The first two rounds struck the front windshield. But the bulletproof glass didn't shatter. Officers Mescan and Anderson, seated directly behind, were unharmed.

Over the next 40 minutes, SWAT members faced fire from a shotgun, a handgun and an AK-47. The officers shot back from the truck, pinning down the gunman.

A sharpshooter "disabled" one of the gunman's weapons, the nomination said.

The gunman called 911 and offered to surrender, but he kept firing at police. Eventually, he gave up.

Mr. Poplawski is facing trial in the deaths of the three officers. He is being held at the Allegheny County Jail.

The city SWAT team, with about 40 members, hasn't slowed down since April 4. As of Friday, they had been called out 87 times in 2009, compared with 83 calls in all of last year.

"You have to know each one of those SWAT operators," Cmdr. Schubert said. "They give 110 percent every time they come to work. They're to be commended for that."

Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper called the valor award a significant honor.

Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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