Second shooting for state trooper
The head of Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board yesterday questioned a state trooper's judgment in the fatal shooting Sunday of a motorist on the South Side based on his history of killing an unarmed boy in 2002.
Authorities said Trooper Samuel Nassan and Pittsburgh police Sgt. Terrence Donnelly shot Nicholas Haniotakis, 33, of the South Side, after he tried to run them over with his sport utility vehicle shortly after 2 a.m.
It is unclear whether one or both officers fired the fatal shots.
On Dec. 24, 2002, Trooper Nassan shot Michael Ellerbe, 12, in the back in Uniontown during a foot chase after the youngster bailed out of a stolen vehicle. Trooper Nassan said he thought Michael had shot his partner, whose gun went off accidentally while he climbed a fence.
The shooting was ruled justified by law enforcement authorities. But last year a federal jury thought otherwise. They found that the troopers intentionally shot the boy and awarded the family $28 million. The state later agreed to a $12.5 million payment.
"I think it's outrageous. You've got a guy who's been involved in a negligent shooting in the past. Taxpayers have to cover and pay $12.5 million for his poor judgment, so right off the bat his judgment is suspect in this situation," said Elizabeth Pittinger, the review board's executive director.
Ms. Pittinger also wondered whether opening fire on crowded streets at bar closing time following the St. Patrick's Day parade revelry increased the threat to public safety instead of reducing it.
Pittsburgh police policy allows officers to fire into moving vehicles being used as weapons when they or others are faced with death or serious injury -- "and the officer has done everything reasonably necessary to avoid the use of deadly force."
State police said their pursuit policy is confidential by law.
Ms. Pittinger asked whether it would have been a safer option for officers to back off. With access to the vehicle's license plate, she said they could have tracked down the driver later.
"I'm just very, very curious as to the details, as to what risk the officers faced. I'm not saying they didn't face a risk. But did they create a bigger risk?" she said.
"They better have a damn good reason for doing what they did other than stopping the threat, because they escalated the threat to people who were on the street that night."
Opening fire posed a risk in and of itself, Ms. Pittinger said. A further risk came from shooting Mr. Haniotakis, thus impairing his driving.
After being shot, police said, Mr. Haniotakis managed to pull out and drive for six blocks -- crossing busy East Carson Street. He struck several unoccupied vehicles before crashing into a utility pole at 22nd and Sarah streets.
Eric Stoltenberg, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association and Trooper Nassan's representative, bristled at Ms. Pittinger's words and said both officers acted properly.
"It was absolutely appropriate, make no mistake about that," Mr. Stoltenberg said. "This is an incident where both the trooper and the Pittsburgh officer handled this absolutely on the money."
Mr. Stoltenberg called Ms. Pittinger's comments "ridiculous and irresponsible."
"She's just deciding that since an officer was involved in a shooting before that whatever he did was inappropriate? This is a statement that at its best could be described as reckless and ill-informed."
Mr. Stoltenberg also noted that the streets were crowded when the incident occurred -- all the more reason, in his opinion, to justify the use of deadly force.
"Officers are trained to do exactly what they did. When a person utilizes their car with intent to kill -- and that's what this guy did -- they are to use deadly force to stop this threat," Mr. Stoltenberg said. "We don't need police officers who are afraid to make decisions. Police officers have to make difficult decisions and they have to be able to do it without fear. Not many people can. These two guys did."
Pittsburgh police said the incident began when Mr. Haniotakis drove his SUV in the wrong lane on 13th Street with a headlight out.
Sgt. Donnelly and Trooper Nassan were in uniform in an unmarked state police vehicle as part of a roving DUI patrol. The sergeant was the city's DUI supervisor for the task force.
Mr. Haniotakis nearly broadsided the police car, authorities said. The pair gave chase when the driver failed to pull over. After a pursuit, the SUV crashed at 22nd and Wharton streets.
Trooper Nassan and Sgt. Donnelly got out and ordered the driver to show his hands. Instead, he "put his vehicle in reverse and struck the unmarked police vehicle nearly hitting one of the officers and drove forward toward the other officer," police said.
"It was extremely close, and [Nassan] had to jump out of the way," Mr. Stoltenberg said.
The officers fired.
"The trooper and the police officer's lives were in danger," said a state police spokeswoman, Cpl. Linette Quinn.
City police and state police are jointly investigating the incident under oversight by the Allegheny County district attorney's office. State police internal affairs is also involved, as is routine.
The trooper is on desk duty. He did not return a call yesterday.
"Unfortunately Sam Nassan was involved with his second shooting," Cpl. Quinn said. "That's a lot to take on. That's kind of unique for a police officer to be involved in a situation like that."
Sgt. Donnelly, a 16-year veteran, is on paid administrative leave, which is also routine. He had not been involved in any previous shooting incidents.
In addition to the lawsuit spawned by the Michael Ellerbe case, Trooper Nassan has had a career marked by other litigation.
In a 2005 lawsuit, a flight attendant sued him after receiving a $75 traffic citation for giving the trooper the finger. The flight attendant said he never made the gesture. The case was settled in 2007 for $7,500.
A pending federal case was filed by a Penn Hills man who claims Trooper Nassan hurled him to the ground and broke his ankle outside a South Side bar.
Last year, an inmate filed suit in federal court alleging that Trooper Nassan used excessive force during a traffic stop in 2005, filed false charges, fabricated dates and maliciously prosecuted him.
First Published March 17, 2009 12:00 am