Pittsburgh police re-examine audio record policy

Case against wounded driver muddied by lack of microphone

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The footage from a video camera mounted on the windshield of the patrol car shows it pulling closer to a gold Infiniti as they both drive down Stanton Avenue. It briefly flashes its lights, activating a microphone that captures the brief chirp of sirens before the Infiniti driver -- 19-year-old Leon Ford -- stops his car. An officer is heard calling in the traffic stop over a police radio.

But when the officers step outside of the car, it's like watching actors in a silent film. Officer Michael Kosko approaches the driver's side and gestures to Mr. Ford, grabbing his license and a sheet of paper from him, but there's no audio of the exchange.

The video is a crucial piece of evidence in Mr. Ford's case, according to his defense attorney, Fred Rabner, who says it could confirm his client's version of the chain of events that led up to Mr. Ford being shot by officers in Highland Park on the night of Nov. 11.

Officer Kosko was required by bureau policy to wear a microphone on his body, but an assistant city solicitor told a judge at a Jan. 30 hearing that the audio did not exist because the officer may have left the microphone in the car.

Mr. Rabner believes the lack of audio was due to intentional actions by the police and tried to compel the bureau to provide audio or an explanation of why it is missing at the hearing. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning denied Mr. Rabner's motion for discovery.

The case raises the issue of the police bureau's requirements regarding the video cameras. Policy requires at least one officer in a car with a camera to wear a microphone, which is about the size of a pager and can clip to an officer's lapel. The policy states that those operating camera-equipped vehicles, as Officer Kosko was, are to ensure traffic stops are recorded. They are required to "carry the audio transmitter throughout their tour of duty." They are not permitted to deactivate the microphones.

Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant confirmed that officers are required to wear microphones and also said the cameras are equipped with an in-car microphone. She said she did not know why the microphone did not record the exchange between officers and Mr. Ford or whether any officers violated bureau policy by failing to wear or turn on their microphones. But it's not uncommon for the microphones to malfunction, she said.

Police said that during the traffic stop, another officer who arrived as backup, David Derbish, leaned into the car on the passenger's side, believing Mr. Ford was reaching for a gun.

Mr. Ford hit the gas pedal and the two men struggled in the car until Officer Derbish shot him four times in the torso, leaving him in critical condition. He crashed seconds later. Mr. Ford faces charges of aggravated assault, three counts of reckless endangerment and driving offenses.

A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for March. Mr. Rabner said the shooting left his client paralyzed from the waist down.

A clip of the video's first four minutes shows the officers driving down Meadow Street and then veering left onto Stanton Avenue, where they catch up with Mr. Ford's car. When both officers leave the vehicle, their voices can no longer be heard; the microphone instead picks up the police radio, the hum of the engine and the quiet whoosh of cars driving by.

In the video, Officer Kosko walks to the driver's side of the car and Officer Andrew Miller to the passenger side. It shows Officer Kosko interacting with Mr. Ford -- gesturing, taking his license and a piece of paper, and using a flashlight to peer into his back windows. At some point, he heads back to the patrol car and can be heard typing on the in-car computer.

Later, Mr. Rabner said, the microphone picks up the sound of gunfire as Mr. Ford drives away with Officer Derbish in his car, but that's the only sound outside the vehicle apparently picked up by the mic. Monte Rabner, Fred Rabner's brother who is also representing Mr. Ford, declined to show more than four minutes of the video.

Fred Rabner argued at the Jan. 30 hearing that the audio is "of critical importance to the sequence of events" because without it what happened in the 20 minutes before Mr. Ford attempted to drive away is up for debate, pitting Mr. Ford's word against that of the officers. Mr. Rabner said his client, who had a valid license and paperwork, said he was harassed and that officers appeared to be looking for a means to search the car when they had no legal means to do so.

Assistant city solicitor Michael Kennedy said at the hearing that officials provided the only audio that existed.

"My best guess is that there was a microphone left in the vehicle," he said. "We gave them what we have and that's all there is to it."

Elizabeth Pittinger, the executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said the microphones are crucial to holding officers accountable.

"You don't want them to have the ability to defeat whatever police accountability mechanism is there, whether it be a video or audio or a combination," she said.


Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed.


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