Police killings will not stop — unless laws and policies drastically change.
It’s possible they just won’t.
In Pittsburgh, protests continued this weekend in response to a story — and the acquittal of a police officer charged with criminal homicide — that will sound familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to police issues anywhere in the United States in the last decade.
As these stories tend to, it started with a gunshot and a video.
A little before 9 p.m. on June 19 last year, police officers in East Pittsburgh — a suburban municipality about 11 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh with a declining population of about 1,800 — pulled over a jitney driver whose gold Chevrolet Cruze allegedly matched the description of one used in a drive-by shooting about 20 minutes beforehand. As the police interaction played out, 17-year-old black teenager Antwon Rose II jumped out of the jitney’s passenger seat and fled into the grassy side yard separating two residential homes. Officer Michael Rosfeld, who initiated the stop and stood near the jitney’s driver-side door as Rose fled, opened fire. A video captured by an onlooker showed Rose collapsing into the side yard, where he later died.
Eight days after Rose’s death, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala filed criminal homicide charges against Rosfeld.
On Friday, a jury acquitted Rosfeld on all charges.
As the protests raged — and questions continued to mount about whether the prosecution did its best to bring a conviction — it’s worth thinking about what broader changes might be helpful to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
Small departments like East Pittsburgh — with low budgets, where officers are paid just $13 per hour to start — can’t be picky about who they hire.
Should Allegheny County municipal police departments merge?
In the weeks and months following Rose’s killing, questions arose — and lawsuits were filed — over whether Rosfeld should’ve been on the street in the first place. Rosfeld had been an officer with the University of Pittsburgh’s police force for years prior to being hired with East Pittsburgh. His tenure at Pitt ended in circumstances allegedly tied to making dishonest statements related to an arrest. But small departments like East Pittsburgh — with low budgets, where officers are paid just $13 per hour to start — can’t be picky about who they hire. They didn’t even ask for Rosfeld’s disciplinary file from Pitt before hiring him. Even officers with questionable backgrounds are often welcomed.
This problem isn’t limited to East Pittsburgh. Not counting the Pennsylvania State Police, Allegheny County has 108 different police forces — all with their own individual budgets, cultures, and hiring processes. One way to pay officers better wages, carry out better vetting processes, and perhaps attract more qualified candidates might be to merge these departments under the umbrella of the Allegheny County Police Department, which has a much bigger budget.
Doing this piecemeal would be expensive — and possibly prohibitive — for these small departments. When East Pittsburgh approached the county about such an option, the county asked for nearly $800,000, according to a PublicSource report. East Pittsburgh Borough couldn’t afford that, but disbanded its police force anyway, putting its policing in the hands of the Pennsylvania State Police. A comprehensive merger might save municipalities funds, and also draw better officers.
How should officer hiring and training address racial bias?
Whites tend to be overrepresented in police departments. A collection of demographic information from 2013 compiled by Governing magazine showed that, in just about every major police department in the U.S., white officers were employed at a higher percentage than their representative swath of the population. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, for example, was made up of more than 84 percent white officers in Governing’s analysis, while whites made up around 64 percent of the city’s population.
The general problem of black underrepresentation among on-duty officers also correlates with black overrepresentation among those killed in police interactions: A Vox analysis of FBI data indicated that while black people made up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they made up 32 percent of those killed by police officers.
This isn’t new. In 1974, after studying similar trends, University of California-Berkeley criminology professor Paul Takagi wrote that “the police have one trigger finger for whites and another for blacks.”
What can Allegheny County police departments — and those all over Pennsylvania and the U.S. — do to address these discrepancies, and to address implicit racial bias in police use of force? It’s a question that many individual police departments have. In Minnesota, it’s now mandatory for cops throughout the state to go through implicit bias training. The City of Pittsburgh is part of an implicit bias training pilot program. How can such training expand to cops in small municipalities?
How can investigations into officer-involved shootings be more fair and transparent?
When Zappala announced criminal homicide charges against Rosfeld, it was applauded in the civil rights community. Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told CNN that the charges were a “necessary step for accountability.”
But it soon became clear that Rosfeld wasn’t being treated like just any defendant. A Postindustrial analysis of 114 homicide cases in 2016 and 2017 showed that Rosfeld was one of only two defendants released from jail to await trial during that period. The treatment raised questions from local civil rights leaders about whether Allegheny County prosecutors — who work hand-in-hand with municipal police to prosecute crimes on a daily basis — were sufficiently independent to prosecute a municipal police officer.
Connecticut and New York have addressed potential conflicts in officer-involved shootings by requiring state agencies to handle such investigations. Hawaii created an independent state entity within the attorney general’s office, the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board, to carry out such probes.
Pennsylvania might consider similar requirements.
University of California-Berkeley criminology professor Paul Takagi wrote that “the police have one trigger finger for whites and another for blacks.”
How can police wrongdoing be addressed when a jury doesn’t seem to follow constitutional standards?
Rosfeld’s acquittal was only surprising because Rose’s killing so closely mirrors a case that, decades ago, set the standard for when officers are not supposed to use deadly force.
In 1985, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Tennessee v. Garner, which involved a police killing from 11 years prior in Memphis, Tennessee. In that case, a Memphis police officer chased a 15-year-old black teenager, Edward Garner, into a backyard. Though the officer later admitted that he assumed Garner was unarmed, he shot the young man to death when he began to climb a chain-link fence to escape. Tennessee law at the time allowed officers to shoot and kill “if, after notice of the intention to arrest the defendant, he either flees or forcibly resists.” Garner’s father contested that law, and in 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court found, in a 6-3 decision, that Tennessee’s statute was unconstitutional. “When a non-violent felon is ordered to stop and submit to police, ignoring that order does not give rise to a reasonable good-faith belief that the use of deadly force is necessary,” Justice Byron White wrote in the majority opinion.
In the video depicting Antwon Rose’s killing, it’s difficult to see how his obvious fleeing from the scene — with no seeming intent to threaten anyone in that moment — justified deadly force by Rosfeld.
Yet a jury decided to acquit him anyway.
While merging police departments, improving hiring and training procedures, and increasing investigative independence might be achievable goals in the wake of Antwon Rose’s death, changing a jury’s decision is impossible
But if activists and legislators address those other issues, jurors might not face having to make decisions like these in the future.
Matt Stroud, an accomplished journalist and book author, is a former staff writer with Bloomberg and the Associated Press who has written for Esquire, Harper’s, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.
Carmen Gentile has worked for The New York Times and CBS News, among others. His book, "Blindsided by the Taliban," documents his life as a war reporter and the aftermath of his brush with death after being shot with a rocket-propelled grenade while embedded with U.S. Army forces in Afghanistan.
Antwon Rose’s mother: ‘It isn’t what I hoped for, but it’s what I expected’ // Andrew Goldstein, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh artist Vanessa German pens poems for Antwon Rose II // PublicSource
Rosfeld verdict sparks protests in East Liberty, Downtown // Julian Routh, Liz Navratil, and Andrew Goldstein, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Antwon Rose — Cause of death: lack of training, lack of empathy // Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Former officer Michael Rosfeld found not guilty in death of Antwon Rose // Paula Reed Ward and Shelly Bradbury, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Antwon Rose’s mother wants everybody to hear his poem // Joshua Barajas, PBS NewsHour
Fatal Force // The Washington Post database tracking people shot and killed by police this year
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