A car fleeing police at high speed through Pittsburgh's South Side just before its many bars closed early Sunday crashed to a halt only after five off-duty police officers opened fire on it, seriously wounding the driver and his mother.
Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper said the incident, which drew attention from many boisterous bar-goers along East Carson Street around 1:45 a.m., began a few minutes earlier on Eighth Avenue in Homestead with a simple traffic offense: a green Buick going through a red light.
Within less than 10 minutes, after being pursued by Homestead, West Homestead and city police at various times, the car rammed the rear of an SUV and struck a taxi coming in the opposite direction in the 1300 block of East Carson. The speeding car's driver, identified by the chief only as a 37-year-old man, and his mother, whose name was also withheld, had both been shot by officers who were working security details for some of the many bars in the area.
Chief Harper said the off-duty officers, after hearing the report on their police radios of a vehicle trying to elude police at high speed, had been trying to clear Carson's bustling street and sidewalks of pedestrians. When the Buick reached the South Side's busiest section, the chief said, it struck multiple parked vehicles while continuing to speed, and the officers feared for their own safety as well as that of bystanders.
The five fired shots after they were "almost struck" by the vehicle, Chief Harper said. He said he did not know how many bullets struck the car's occupants.
"The officers felt the use of deadly force was justified because the actor was using his vehicle as a deadly weapon," the chief said. The five, whose names were not released, have been placed on paid administrative leave during an investigation by police and the Allegheny County district attorney's office.
While he said he could not describe the nature and extent of the gunshot wounds, the chief said the car's occupants were in serious condition. He said the officers were in different positions in a span of several blocks when they fired their weapons.
He knew of no other injuries, but said a female bystander had contacted police to say she believed she had been "grazed" by a bullet but had not sought medical attention.
No weapons or drugs were found inside the vehicle or in the possession of the two individuals who were shot, Chief Harper said. He said a check of the driver's criminal background history found only that warrants had been issued against him for traffic violations in Georgia.
Homestead police Chief Jeffrey DeSimone said two of his officers -- each traveling in their own cars -- began the pursuit around 1:30 or 1:40 a.m. He said the officers -- an eight- or nine-year veteran of the Homestead Police Department and an officer who has been with the department for three or four years and had previous experience with other agencies -- pursued the driver at speeds of 40 or 45 miles per hour and pulled back slightly when they entered the bustling South Side. He said his officers, whose names he declined to release, were not injured and did not open fire. Both are on normal duty, he said.
Chief Harper said police had backed off of high-speed pursuit of the car twice because of safety concerns in the busiest strip of the South Side. Road spikes had been deployed at 24th and Carson in hopes of stopping the vehicle, but the driver eluded them and continued, while striking as many as four other vehicles "like a pingpong" game, the chief said.
One pedestrian in the area at the time of the incident said it did not appear to him that police slowed down in their pursuit.
South Side resident Chris Burgan, 29, who had been visiting a bar with friends, said he stepped onto Carson between 19th and 20th streets and saw the Buick "whipping down the street. ... Then I saw all these cop cars that must have been going well over 40 mph straight down Carson."
He said there were more than 10 cruisers and police wagons from multiple police jurisdictions following one another at high speed, with a gap of five to 10 seconds behind the car they were chasing. He did not see the crash but heard multiple gunshots from down the street and questioned whether officers should have used their weapons.
"Opening fire on Carson Street when every bar patron is on the street walking home?" he said.
A security manager for one tavern close to the crash scene, who asked not to be identified, said he and the establishment's off-duty police officer had both been trying to get patrons out of the street, off the sidewalk and inside before the chase ended up on their block.
He said he heard at least four shots fired along Carson near 13th Street and saw the car strike three other vehicles before stopping. The off-duty officer "almost got hit himself" by the Buick before the crash, but was not one of those involved in the shooting, the security manager said.
There were so many people on the street during and after the shootings, some of them unruly, that it posed problems for police at the scene, Chief Harper said. He said many people refused officers' requests to go back into bars or leave the area. While none of those individuals was arrested, there may have been citations issued against some, he said.
He said investigators would make use of multiple video cameras in place along Carson Street to assist them in piecing together details of the shootings and the crash.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255. Liz Navratil contributed. First Published January 14, 2013 5:00 AM