Shooting by Pittsburgh officer being investigated
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It was shortly before 10 p.m. Sunday in Highland Park when two officers pulled over a man for a traffic infraction at Stanton Avenue and Farragut Street in what police described as a routine stop.
Two officers approached -- one officer on the driver's side and Officer David Derbish, a 26-year-old who was hired in 2009, on the passenger side.
Police said the driver, Leon Ford, 19, of East Liberty, refused to answer questions after Officer Derbish and his partner ran his license and the car's registration. They said Officer Derbish thought he spotted Mr. Ford move his right hand, as if reaching for something, and opened the passenger door in an effort to stop him.
Mr. Ford threw the car into drive and Officer Derbish jumped inside to avoid being dragged, police said.
They said Mr. Ford attempted to push Officer Derbish out of the car and the officer then fired his duty weapon into Mr. Ford's chest three times.
Mr. Ford drove about 100 yards before crashing into a rocky landscaping feature Medics took him to UPMC Presbyterian, where he was listed in critical but stable condition Monday night.
"The officer fired a weapon in self-defense," Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said. "The actor was struck several times and subsequently the vehicle crashed into a residence in the 6000 block of Stanton Avenue."
Officer Derbish was thrown against the dashboard and windshield, injured his hand and was treated at UPMC Mercy. He was placed on leave because of his injury, Major Crimes Lt. Daniel Herrmann said in a news release, and city homicide detectives, in conjunction with the Allegheny County district attorney's office, are investigating.
Chief Donaldson said it was too early to judge the officer's actions as police continued to gather information on how the situation unraveled.
"We do know that our officers are permitted to fire in self-defense or in defense of others, and the officer believed at the time his life was in danger, so he took this action," he said.
But police and a national training expert said officers are not trained to reach into cars because of the risk they could be dragged and because it leaves them vulnerable.
Ed Delmore, the chief of the Gulf Shores, Ala., police department, is a consultant with LifeLine Training, a national company that has advised police departments across the country.
He said reaching into a vehicle during a traffic stop, as a general matter, is "a bad idea," although he declined to comment specifically on Sunday's case.
"Typically, it's not something that we would want officers to do just because its dangerous for them," he said. "Officers are not trained to reach into a vehicle in an attempt to stop it like that."
While he was working as a security guard at a Target, Chief Delmore said he once reached into a car of suspected shoplifters who were fleeing in a car, reaching for the gear shift much as Officer Derbish did.
He successfully stopped them, "but I was very lucky that I didn't get hurt [or] killed in doing it."
"I learned never to do it again," he said. "I obviously could have been seriously injured in the process."
Still, he emphasized that while it's generally not the best course of action, there are circumstances that might warrant reaching into a vehicle even when the driver is threatening to flee.
Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said officer training and safety procedures will likely be reviewed as more facts are revealed.
"We don't want to rush to judgment here," she said. "We want to be patient as we determine the protocol and actions that were taken and why the officer did what he did and why the driver did what he did."
Residents in Highland Park lamented the violence that had befallen their calm corner of the neighborhood.
Alex White, 28, a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary student, said he thought he heard gunshots outside his apartment at Anderson Hall on Stanton Avenue, the school's housing complex that sits across the street from the house where the car crashed and bloodied clothing lay on the sidewalk.
"I hit the ground, and before I had any wits about me, sirens were going," Mr. White said.
Mr. White said he peeked out his window and saw a man on the ground next to the car. He watched as police picked him up and medics loaded him into an ambulance.
His neighbors soon began trickling out of their apartments in hopes of learning more about the police activity they consider rare on their mostly quiet street, but not unusual in their neighborhood.
"It's bound to happen in the city," said Joel Montgomery, 26, who went outside after hearing the car crash. "It's city life."
First Published November 13, 2012 12:10 am