Shooting Penn Hills bank robbery suspect was justified, chief says
Officer in training is placed on paid leave
June 9, 2010 4:00 AM
By Sadie Gurman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A bank robbery suspect shot as he tried to escape a traffic stop in the South Side remained hospitalized Tuesday, and the officers involved in the shooting -- one still in field training -- were put on paid administrative leave.
Police said Douglas Lee Higgins, 54, of Penn Hills, came within a foot of running down Officer Raymond Murray, who fired at the suspect in the Monday night incident. He was charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and fleeing or eluding a police officer.
Police said the incident began around 7:30 p.m. as Officers Murray and Jeffrey Abraham followed Mr. Higgins in their marked van. The 1998 maroon Dodge Stratus Mr. Higgins was driving matched the description of a car involved in a bank robbery earlier in the day in Penn Hills. They briefly stopped the car at 27th and Jane streets, but Mr. Higgins sped off, police wrote in a criminal complaint, leading officers to the dead-end intersection of Jane and 28th. Mr. Higgins idled for a moment, police said, but as the officers got out of the van, he put his car in reverse and sped toward them, narrowly missing Officer Murray. Mr. Higgins' car sideswiped the police van about a foot from where the officer was standing, Sgt. Timothy Westwood said. Officer Murray then fired six shots toward Mr. Higgins, striking him in the right shoulder.
"Being in fear of his safety and the safety of his partner, that's when he fired," Sgt. Westwood said. Mr. Higgins barreled into some concrete blocks and was arrested. He was being treated at UPMC Mercy for his injuries, which police said are not life-threatening. Neither officer was hurt.
Police Chief Nathan Harper called the officers justified in their shooting, saying they acted in self-defense "for their safety and well-being." Officer Murray received his badge and was sworn in last month, but he and the city's 38 other recruits must spend three months alongside more experienced officers before they can patrol the streets alone. Officer Abraham, who was Officer Murray's field-training officer on Monday night, has been on the force for three years. Both will be on paid leave while city police and the district attorney's office review the incident, as is protocol when an officer shoots someone.
Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton said Mr. Higgins is "definitely the same guy" his officers sought in the robbery at the PNC Bank on Saltsburg Road. He said Mr. Higgins entered the bank about 10 a.m. demanding money.
"No weapons were seen," the chief said. A clerk gave him the money and he left.
Detectives were able to identify him with help from the bank's surveillance footage, and the Allegheny County emergency operations center told officers to be on the lookout for his vehicle. Chief Burton said Penn Hills officers were obtaining a warrant for his arrest on robbery charges when he was shot.
When Pittsburgh police searched Mr. Higgins' car after the incident, they found "miscellaneous drugs in his possession" and $360 cash, Chief Harper said.
Mr. Higgins' criminal record dates back to the early 1990s and includes drug, traffic and firearms offenses. In 2007, he pleaded guilty to drug possession and a firearms offense and was sentenced to up to two years in prison and a year of probation, court records show. A preliminary hearing in his city case is scheduled for June 17.