Police Drama: Video captured the night police officers shot an unarmed motorist four times leads to more questions than answers | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Police Drama: Video captured the night police officers shot an unarmed motorist four times leads to more questions than answers

"We don't expect our police to shoot unarmed suspects."

These nine still photos were taken from the police-cruiser dashboard camera the night officers stopped 19-year-old Leon Ford. The routine traffic stop resulted in Ford being shot four times in the chest by city officers.
These nine still photos were taken from the police-cruiser dashboard camera the night officers stopped 19-year-old Leon Ford. The routine traffic stop resulted in Ford being shot four times in the chest by city officers.

At first, there was nothing unusual about the traffic stop that began at about 9:30 p.m. on the night of Nov. 11. 

Two Pittsburgh Police officers, trailing a 2006 silver Infiniti G35x they later reported was "driving too fast," saw the driver fail to come to a complete stop at a Highland Park intersection. As a dashboard camera recorded, they flashed their lights, prompting the driver to use his right-turn signal and pull over almost immediately, near the corner of Stanton Avenue and Farragut Street.

The driver, 19-year-old Leon Ford Jr., was alone. He handed over his license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance. 

There are a lot of mysteries about what happened next: 

Why did the officers doubt Ford's identity when Ford's paperwork was in order, stretching the stop out to nearly twice the amount of time of an average traffic stop in Pittsburgh? 

Why did none of the three city officers involved in the stop have a working microphone on his uniform, which would have allowed their conversations with Ford to be recorded? 

Why did one of the officers jump inside the car — despite a strongly worded policy to the contrary? 

And what would cause Ford to suddenly put the car in gear, driving away with the officer inside?

What will be certain is this: Ford, unarmed, will prove to be exactly who he says he is. The officer who jumped into the car will suffer a dislocated thumb and numerous scratches when it crashes, according to the police report and his later testimony in court. Ford, hit in the chest by four of the five bullets fired from the officer's gun, will be paralyzed, according to his family. He'll later be charged with a felony count of aggravated assault, as well as three misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering all three officers.

At a March 7 preliminary hearing, Ford's attorney argued that his client "simply reacted to overzealous police officers" — an excuse the District Attorney's office and other law-enforcement professionals reject.  

"Even if it's an unlawful arrest, he cannot refuse to comply," says Sheldon Williams, a retired 16-year Pittsburgh Police veteran who reviewed the video of the incident. "We can't have people trying to determine right or wrong in the moment."

But Williams, who trained officers in the department on use-of-force tactics among other areas, also has some questions about how police acted that night, noting that Ford followed the officers' instructions for the majority of the stop. 

"I surely wrestle with what did he see that made him not want to cooperate? What was the threat he saw?"

For much of the stop, the dashboard camera shows little sign that anyone feels threatened.  While the officers who initiated the stop, Michael Kosko and Andrew Miller, repeatedly shine their flashlights throughout the car, both can be seen at times standing together next to the driver's-side door. That's contrary to the bureau's policy, which requires that when two officers are on scene, one provides cover for the other from the opposite side of the vehicle throughout the stop.

While talking to Ford, they often shift their feet and look away from both the vehicle and Ford. Kosko is often seen holding paperwork in the hand he'd use to draw his weapon.

But officers immediately harbored doubts about Ford. 

The problem wasn't his record: Other than a first-time DUI in early September, court records show no history of run-ins with the police. But according to the police report, Kosko ran Ford's name through the bureau's computer system as "L. Ford" instead of "Leon Ford," because "sometimes people use different names."

Which is how he pulled up the name of Lamont Ford Jr. 

Lamont Ford had been sentenced in February 2012 on a charge of possession with intent to deliver. But it's unclear why the officers would have been interested in him: Court records show that he'd completed his six-month probation by the time of Leon Ford's stop, and had no warrants outstanding.

It is also unclear how a third officer, David Derbish — who was called to the scene by Miller to help identify the driver, according to an in-car audio recording — would be familiar with Lamont Ford. Court records do not show Derbish as having been involved in Lamont Ford's previous arrest. And none of the officers responded to messages left through Zone 5 Commander Timothy O'Connor. O'Connor referred questions about the incident to acting police chief Regina McDonald, who declined to discuss the incident, citing an internal investigation.

The dashboard camera shows Kosko standing next to the Infiniti, talking with Ford, while Miller and Derbish can be heard discussing Ford's identity inside the car:

"Dude, dude — remember Lamont Ford?" Miller can be heard asking on the tape's audio.

"Yeah," says Derbish.

"Is that him?"

"Yeah, it's the same dude," Derbish says — though after another exchange he asks, "How did he get a new license plate?" 

Records do show similarities between the men. Both have "Junior" in their name, and according to police and court records, both are black men, about 5-foot-7, with brown eyes and black hair. Leon Ford weighed about 165 pounds at the time of the incident; a police report stemming from a July 2011 arrest described Lamont Ford as weighing about 140 pounds.

But Leon and Lamont also have different middle names, and different birthdays: Lamont Ford is about four months older. Leon Ford also has distinctive tattoos, including one on his neck that spells out the name of his sister, who was killed in a traffic accident in 2006.

On tape, Derbish and Miller can be heard noting the differing birthdays. Still, Derbish concludes, "Yeah, look right there and right there — it's got to be him."

"Got to be him," Miller agrees. Moments later, they exit the vehicle. 

The next few minutes of the video unfold silently, outside the range of the dashboard-camera microphone. The dashboard camera records only the movements of the officers — none of Ford's movements.

While Miller joins Kosko on the driver's side, Derbish provides cover on the passenger side, shining his flashlight into the car.

Derbish, peering through the car window, motions for Miller to come to his side.

Testifying later at the preliminary hearing, Derbish says he "observed a large unnatural bulge" in the pocket of Ford's sweatpants and believed it was a firearm. He testified that Miller agreed.

Miller walks back to the driver's side. All three officers now have their hands free, and positioned near their weapons.

 "Miller ... asked the driver to step out," Derbish testified. "The driver replied no. Miller asked again. He did not. Miller opened the car door and asked a third time. He did not." Miller then "went hands on the driver and attempted to remove him."

In the video, Miller's attempt to pull Ford from the vehicle appears to meet resistance, and Miller pulls harder. At the same time, Derbish reaches for the passenger-side door. He tugs, then looks up at the other officers. Kosko turns toward the open driver's door and reaches down — possibly to unlock the passenger-side door. Derbish tugs on the passenger-side door again, opens it and jumps inside.

Derbish testified later that initially, he opened the passenger door because he "feared the driver was reaching for a gun." But then he saw Ford reach for the gear shift. Fearing the other officers were in danger, he struggled with Ford over the gear shift while Miller tried to remove Ford from the car.

"A car is 1,000 pounds; it doesn't have to move far to cause injury," Derbish said.

The video shows the Infiniti rock slightly back and forth after Derbish jumps in. The brake lights flicker briefly and then the car lurches forward, causing Kosko and Miller to jump out of the way and both car doors to close.

Six seconds elapse between the moment Derbish enters the Infiniti and the sound of the first gunshot.

Derbish testified that he was knocked around by the motion of the car and felt Ford pushing on his chest. He said he yelled repeatedly for Ford to stop.

"I felt my life was in danger. The vehicle wasn't stopping," he testified. "I was in danger of falling out the back door. I withdrew my weapon and fired." The vehicle veered off the road and crashed.

Police later called out dogs to search for the weapon police thought they saw. None was found. 

Leon Ford did not testify at his preliminary hearing; his attorney, Fred Rabner, has instructed the family not to speak about the incident, and did not return calls for comment. Leon Ford Sr. declined an interview on his son's behalf, and declined to share his son's version of events. But he says Leon Jr. "is in real bad shape physically and mentally" — and that the family feels powerless to challenge the officers' conduct. 

"Everything is justified," he says. "Everything they say is, ‘We thought we saw a gun.'"

But questions are being asked about police actions that night. 

For starters, by the time Ford threw the car into "drive," he'd been pulled over for roughly 16 minutes. The bureau's policy on vehicle stops encourages police to be "quick, effective and efficient." And while it doesn't specify how long a stop should take, the bureau's annual report shows that in 2012, the average stop was just 10 minutes, 29 seconds. 

In court, Rabner blamed the officers for ignoring Ford's license, and the evidence that he and Lamont Ford were different people: Police "wouldn't accept the fact that he was who he said he was," Rabner argued.

 "It went from a routine traffic stop to a harassing situation," says Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability — and a relation to Ford through her sister's marriage to his brother. 

Pittsburgh Citizens Police Review Board Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger, who reviewed the video, says the stop "was fine up until the point where [police] didn't believe he was who he said he was." 

"Why wouldn't they believe the man who gave them ID?" she asks. "That could affect anybody." 

Williams, the former detective, isn't troubled by the length of the stop: "I think they were really trying to overcome their suspicions," he says. But he does question some of their other actions.

"I think there was a plan to get into the car," Williams says, citing the tug on the what appears to be a locked passenger-side door and its unlocking by Kosko. "Why they choose to go hands-on at that point is unknown to me."

Bureau policy asserts that "[t]he officer should never reach into the suspect's vehicle while the engine is running" (emphasis included). Williams says some situations can justify breaking a policy: "It's not unreasonable for officers to try and take control of the weapon" — particularly when they are within close range. Still, he says, "it is risky for the officers. It's not something I would condone as my first step for gaining control."

Another concern is the lack of audio from outside the police vehicle. According to bureau policy, at least one officer should have been wearing a microphone that would have recorded any conversation with Ford. But that audio is missing. Officials with the Bureau and the District Attorney's Office declined to answer questions related to the microphones. It is not known, for example, whether the officers had previously reported problems with their microphones: A response to a City Paper records request was still pending as of press time.

Pittinger says recording is done "for the sake of documenting ... the police actions and ensuring unambiguous accountability." Not having such tape in this case, she adds, "defeated the system of accountability." 

All three officers continue to actively patrol while an internal investigation is ongoing, according to O'Connor.

Fisher says she is "not comfortable at all" with the officers being back on the street. "Any time a police officer is under investigation, especially for use of deadly force, he should not be working continuously." 

A 2010 city ordinance allows for officers to be put on paid administrative leave during an investigation of an officer's use of force. But such leave is "at the direction of the Chief of Police and the Public Safety Director," and in any case "shall not be considered a suspension or disciplinary action taken against the officer." 

"In the court of public opinion, it probably would be more palatable if they put them on administrative leave until all the questions are answered," Williams says. "We don't expect our police to shoot unarmed suspects."

Ford's arraignment is scheduled for April 24.

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