Opinion

East Pittsburgh Shooting: A Sober Look at a True Tragedy

As a retired cop, I see my current calling as speaking about, writing about, and discussing the causes and effects of de-policing in America. Another part of my job is to defend law enforcement officers who are unfairly attacked, which leads to de-policing. I also try to make complex calls more understandable to the public from one police officer’s perspective. Remember, in most professions, when a person makes an honest mistake a steak is overcooked, numbers are added incorrectly, or mail is delivered to the wrong address. If cops make mistakes, people can die.

Having said this, the recent tragic shooting of a black 17-year-old by a white police officer in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is troubling in obvious and not so obvious ways. We have the death of a young man just about to begin his adult life. And we have people using his death to malign all cops. Regardless, I’m not here to defend the officer’s actions. But I am here to defend against cop-haters exploiting this shooting to paint all officers with a broad political brush—which, by the way, also causes de-policing.

In fact, if it weren’t for the reckless anti-cop faction spewing its hate for all law enforcement officers, I wouldn’t be addressing this issue at all, except to wish the family my condolences on their indescribable loss. But they are, so I am.

In some circumstances, what is obvious to other cops about an officer’s actions, especially involving force, is not obvious to the general public. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. Still, it’s always best to allow the investigation to take its course. And while the shooting is admittedly perplexing from what we know, certain accusations and behaviors of people commenting on and protesting this tragedy trouble me for several reasons. Let’s go over some of them because they contribute to de-policing.

I watched the video of the shooting and my first thought was, WTF? What was that officer thinking, shooting? And I also thought, what was that young man thinking, running? Of course, wondering what the officer and young man were thinking when they did what they did is always my first clue I need to slow down my reaction to, and certainly making any reflexive conclusions about, the incident. For those not personally affected such as family and friends, knee-jerk, emotional responses are far too easy, lazy, and help no one.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala quickly charged the officer with homicide. Zappala also said “his office planned to ask a jury to consider the highest charge of first-degree murder.” Zappala also argued against bail for the officer. Despite these actions, protesters have taken to the streets anyway. This reveals opportunism and exploitation of tragedy when people protest even though the system appears to be working.

And demonstrators are not only taking to the streets. Angered that the officer was released on $250,000 bail, a group of people surrounded his home. I don’t blame the people for their anger, especially family and friends. In their positions I’d probably feel the same. But the judge likely used criteria he or she exercises with everyone when making similar decisions. Or maybe not; I could be wrong. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the judge had not allowed bail, but he or she did. That’s the system. It doesn’t mean justice won’t be achieved.

(Credit: Facebook/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

However, we’re seeing a national trend of leftist protesters’ activities bleeding over from public to private spaces, aren’t we? Leftist protesters have forced Trump administration officials from public accommodations, such as restaurants, and are showing up to demonstrate at their homes. While this situation is not nearly the same as showing up to protest a politician at his/her home, the presumption of innocence, even for an accused cop, is still the law of the land and must be respected or the legal system collapses.

I hate to admit this, but the motivations behind these protesters’ actions demonstrate one slight area of agreement between the lefties and me: it’s hard to trust government these days, at any level. When Americans see the top people at the FBI, once the premier law enforcement agency on earth, prevaricating and outright lying during interviews and even when testifying before Congress, they lose some faith in all law enforcement agencies. I mean, if a Democrat administration can politically weaponize the FBI and other federal agencies, and use it against Americans, even an American running for president, how could they not lose faith?

Gratuitous demonstrations aside, to assess this shooting incident as fairly and objectively as I can, I need to engage my critical thinking. Though my default is to give an officer the benefit of the doubt, in this case, from what I’ve seen and read, I have no idea what was in the officer’s mind when he fired those tragic shots. I also have no idea why the teen ran? I’m not a mind reader, but I can consider the evidence as it’s been reported to date.

An Associated Press story posted in Policeone.com brings up some concerning factors for both Officer Michael Rosfeld and Antwon Rose Jr., the 17-year-old he shot and killed.

  • Officer Rosfeld first told investigators Rose “turned his hand toward him when he ran…from the officer and that he ‘saw something dark he perceived as a gun.’”
  • During a second interview, Rosfeld reportedly changed his version and told investigators he “did not see a gun and wasn’t sure if the teen’s arm was pointed at him when he fired.”
  • Rosfeld is a 30-year-old and has reportedly already worked for several law enforcement agencies.

Any cop will tell you that inconsistent statements often signal a person isn’t telling the entire truth or is boldly lying about what happened. If Officer Rosfeld did change the story he told investigators, this could signal dishonesty on his part. But it could also indicate extreme emotional distress from the incident. The video shows the incident unfolded in seconds. Regardless of what anti-cop factions believe, police officers are tremendously affected after shootings, especially under these circumstances.

Reportedly, Officer Rosfeld has worked for various police departments, which can signal possible employee problems. Worried about lawsuits, many departments refuse to provide other employers with references because it could make them liable for negative information that prevents a person from being hired by another agency.

I know several officers who’ve worked for multiple departments over their careers. This does not normally mean it is a sign of a troubled officer. Most “laterals”—experienced officers who join other police departments—are fine additions to the new agency. However, in a few cases, it could suggest a problem employee.

I can’t say if Rosfeld was a fine addition or a newly-acquired problem officer. However, according to the AP, when reporters asked Zappala if anything in the officer’s former employment records raised any concerns, Zappala said yes but didn’t give any specifics. News reports show Rosfeld had just been sworn in as an East Pittsburgh police officer the day of the shooting.

Absent circumstances that make the person an imminent danger to the public, no unarmed person should ever die simply for running from the police. Still, when assessing a police officer’s actions, people should also take into consideration the nature of the call.

The officers hadn’t stopped the car because the driver ran a red light, despite many news outlets reporting Rose ran from a “traffic stop.” The car police stopped matched the description of the suspect vehicle in a drive-by shooting. Such a crime means when police stop the suspect(s), they are likely to be armed. In fact, for cops, if any suspect has not been physically searched by an officer, the suspect cannot be assumed to be unarmed. Endemically heightening the officers’ suspicions and concerns were evident bullet holes in the suspect vehicle’s auto body, as reported by Boston.com.

Rather universal in law enforcement agencies, the general protocol in my department for the situation described in this incident would probably have been to do what we called a “felony or high-risk stop.” That means, pulling the suspect car over, and officers taking up positions of cover, guns drawn. Then an officer would communicate with the suspects by voice or amplified through the car’s PA system. The officer would give commands for suspects to get out of the car, one person at time. Each suspect would walk backward toward the officers where he or she would be taken into custody and brought to a waiting patrol car. Other officers would “cover” the suspect car until the final passenger was in custody and the vehicle was “cleared.”

If an occupant chooses to bail out and run, if there are enough officers, some may chase the suspect. If not, an officer will via radio broadcast the description and direction of travel of the suspect who ran. I was involved in many situations like this.

This distinction in approaches is not meant to criticize the officers’ procedures here prior to the shooting. Every situation is different. I don’t know; I wasn’t there. I admit there were times in my career my fellow officers and I did not use a high-risk stop when we probably should have. I only use the example to illustrate how differently the same incident could be handled depending on personnel and circumstances. Another officer would probably give another example. In police work, there are many “right” and “wrong” ways to do things.

I don’t know the level of risk the officers perceived under their specific circumstances when they stopped the car. I suppose it could have been a “traffic stop,” but nothing in the reporting I read indicates the driver committed any traffic infractions to induce the stop. So, I’m assuming the officers stopped the car specifically to investigate it and the occupants for the shooting.

As I mentioned above, according to reports, Rose was sitting in the front passenger’s seat, in a car with another teen, Zaijuan Hester, who was sitting in the backseat. After running from police, Hester was later located and arrested for a drive-by shooting committed earlier while reports say Rose was present and for which the officers had initially stopped the vehicle.

So, while, according to witnesses, Rose did not do the shooting, there are some concerning factors for him, too:

  • Why was Rose a passenger in a car matching the description of a car used in a drive-by shooting, riding with Hester who was later arrested for that shooting, and in which two guns were found?
  • Why, when stopped by the police, did Rose and Hester both bail out of the car and run from the cops rather than cooperate?
  • Why did investigators find an empty gun magazine in Rose’s pocket? Did the magazine correspond to either gun?

None of these factors exonerate Rosfeld or explain his decision to shoot, but it adds to the totality of the circumstances and provides a greater perspective. Anti-cop factions love to point to shootings like this as evidence of cops indiscriminately shooting unarmed young black men. But there are many respected studies that show this is a myth. Incidentally, about this myth, if you have the time, it’s worth reading Larry Elder’s recent enlightening column on this issue.

On paper (and on video), without context and with emotions running high, hunting people is what some people want it to look like the cops are doing. But after critically thinking about the incident, we learn this is the first on-duty shooting Rosfeld has been involved in. And we can’t deny Rose made obvious mistakes that contributed to this tragedy, the biggest of which was fleeing.

Leonard Hammonds II was angry that an officer had his hand on a weapon during a rally to protest the shooting death of Antwon Rose by East Pittsburgh police. A police officer’s prerogative is “gun retention” among an angry mob. (Credit: Facebook/Michael Ashley)

Cynical, anti-cop folks will say Rose ran “because he was afraid the cops would shoot him.” However, if the cop planned to shoot the suspect, he could have done it at any time during the encounter. Remember, Hester was in the backseat allegedly armed with two guns at the time and Rose was in the front seat. But the officers were taking the car’s driver (later determined to be an unlicensed gypsy cabbie) into custody, apparently without incident, when the teens decided to escape. Every indication before the shooting seems to show the officers would have taken each teen into custody the same way.

Like proverbial dominoes, Officer Rosfeld didn’t shoot until Rose and Hester ran from the police. Had Rose not run, it’s likely Rosfeld would not have shot him. If Rose hadn’t been in a car with Hester, a reportedly armed suspect in a drive-by shooting who allegedly shot a man while Rose was present, the police wouldn’t have stopped the car to investigate in the first place. These facts may be uncomfortable, but they are a part of the totality of the circumstances people, especially young men, need to know about to avoid such incidents in the future.

My point: though this situation is truly tragic, it does not prove that cops are indiscriminately shooting innocent people in the streets. Rose’s family and friends have every reason to be distraught and angry at this tragic end to their 17-year-old loved one’s life—I would be if it were my son. I’d be pissed. I’d be livid. I’d probably be inconsolable for a long time. Still, eventually, even in the quiet of my thoughts, I’d have to ask myself why my son was in a car with a suspected drive-by shooter allegedly armed with two guns, why my son had a gun magazine in his pocket, and why he chose to run from the police. That’s why the public generally needs to assess the totality of these situations soberly and affix responsibility where it belongs—all of it. And, of course, wait until the investigation is completed and don’t blame all cops for what a few may do.

This incident seems to have resulted from the culmination of many bad decisions: Rose’s decision to be in the company of an alleged felon and Rosfeld’s decision to shoot in a situation that does not appear to have been justified.

Critical thinking also demands other questions be asked:

  • Were Hester and Rose riding together or separately as passengers in the Gypsy cab?
  • If together, then Rose might have been at least culpable for remaining in the car after the shooting and not reporting the crime to the police.
  • If not together, then why would Rose stay in the car after the shooting?
  • Was Hester holding the cabbie hostage and forcing him to drive?
  • Was Hester holding Rose hostage, too?
  • If so, then why did Rose run with Hester when the police were taking the cabbie into custody?
  • If Rose was not with Hester, why not stay in the car when Hester ran?

There are so many unanswered questions. But none of these questions exonerates Rosfeld for firing those shots—that’s on him. But it also can’t be denied that Rose’s decisions put himself in grave danger that night. Running from the police is never a good idea. But running from a criminal investigation involving firearms is the worst idea.

But, once again we see an alleged bad shooting resulting not from cops hunting people down in the streets, as some would have you believe, but while conducting a legitimate criminal investigation into a person’s illegal actions. Even if Rose didn’t pull the trigger in the car during the drive-by shooting, it is illegal to run from the police while they are conducting an investigation of which you are a part.

As I say so often, cops don’t have crystal balls. They can’t immediately believe what the cabbie said at the scene about what Rose and Hester had done or not done in the car. The police have to verify the driver’s involvement with additional investigation. It’s likely the driver was brought to the station to speak with detectives and provide a written statement.

At the time the two young men ran, the officers hadn’t had much time to interview the driver. I’m guessing the information about who shot and who did not shoot the weapon during the drive-by shooting came out later, not at the scene. Not knowing who did what, the police officers likely believed Rose and Hester were running away to evade arrest for the drive-by shooting. The officers could not know for sure if they were armed when they ran or not. Remember, the cops had the right car and the right suspect who allegedly had two guns with him which were found in the backseat.

Nothing can alleviate the tragedy for Antwon Rose’s family. There are no words, there are neither discoveries to be made nor prosecutions to be carried out that will reduce the pain and anguish one bit. I’d just ask that people refrain from condemning all police for this act, which may eventually be determined to have been a mistaken, negligent, reckless, or intentional homicide by one individual police officer.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Steve Pomper

Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor, a retired Seattle police officer, and the author of four non-fiction books, including De-Policing America: A Street Cop’s View of the Anti-Police State. You can read a review of this new book in Front Page Magazine and listen to an interview with Steve on the Joe Pags Show. Steve was a field-training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and served his entire career on the streets. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. He enjoys spending time with his kids and grand-kids. He loves to ride his Harley, hike, and cycle with his wife, Jody, a retired firefighter. You can find out more about Steve and send him comments and questions at www.stevepomper.com.

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