Pittsburgh officer may have violated policy before shooting driver

Family barred from visiting 19-year-old in Highland Park traffic stop

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When Pittsburgh Officer David Derbish opened the passenger door of Leon Ford's car and leaned in, he said he believed the 19-year-old was reaching for something.

But that move -- reaching into the car -- may have violated the police bureau's own rules about traffic stops, which prohibits officers from reaching into a suspect's car when the engine is running. It also raised questions about whether the officer put himself in unnecessary danger and precipitated the turn of events that led him to shoot the driver in the chest, saying he feared for his life.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said it appeared that the officer violated the policy and she believed he should face disciplinary action.

"It's an insubordinate act, and there should be a consequence," she said. "He compromised his own safety by deviating from the policy standard."

Police said that after Officer Derbish opened the door, Mr. Ford, who had been pulled over for traffic violations, began driving away. Officer Derbish jumped into the car because he feared he would be dragged, police said. As Mr. Ford tried to push the officer out, the officer fired several shots at Mr. Ford, striking him in the chest. The car crashed about 100 yards later into a rocky landscaping feature near Stanton Avenue and Farragut Street in Highland Park.

Mr. Ford, who remained in critical condition under guard at UPMC Presbyterian, was due to be arraigned from his hospital room Wednesday after police filed criminal charges against him, including aggravated assault and three counts of reckless endangerment. He was also charged with traffic violations, including reckless driving and running a stop sign. Details of the charges were not available late Wednesday.

"We believed he intended to kill a police officer," Lt. Kevin Kraus said.

But some questioned whether Officer Derbish put himself in harm's way when it was not essential or expedient, a move that then required him to shoot Mr. Ford. And, according to a copy of police bureau policy obtained by the Post-Gazette, the matter is cut-and-dried: "The officer should never reach into the suspect's vehicle while the engine is running."

Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Diane Richard declined to say whether Mr. Ford's engine was running.

"The officer put himself in a compromising situation, which led up to his belief that he needed to use deadly force," said Brandi Fisher, the executive director of the Alliance for Police Accountability. She believes Mr. Ford feared the police would harm him when Officer Derbish opened the door.

Mr. Ford, of Garfield, had a valid driver's license, though he was arrested in September for DUI and underage drinking.

Meanwhile, his family criticized the police for barring them from seeing him and for failing to provide them with any information about his condition or his whereabouts, though police said it's department policy to prohibit visitors to inmates who are in the hospital.

When his mother, Latonya Green, went to UPMC Presbyterian, staff told her he wasn't there. When she returned Tuesday, a detective told her he had undergone two surgeries but that she could not see him.

"My heart is wrecked," she said during a news conference at the St. Lawrence O'Toole Activity Center in Garfield. "The police shot my son. Now they're guarding my son. I don't trust the police."


Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published November 15, 2012 5:00 AM


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