PITTSBURGH (AP) — A white police officer was charged Wednesday with homicide in the death of an unarmed black teenager who was shot in the back while fleeing a traffic stop, a shooting that has fueled daily protests around Pittsburgh.
Prosecutors cited officer Michael Rosfeld’s inconsistent statements about whether he saw a gun in the teen’s hand.
The officer first told investigators that the teen turned his hand toward him when he ran from the car and the officer “saw something dark he perceived as a gun,” according to the criminal complaint .
During a second recap of last week’s shooting, Rosfeld told investigators he did not see a gun and he was not sure if the teen’s arm was pointed at him when he fired at 17-year-old Antwon Rose Jr.
The 30-year-old officer had been sworn in just hours before the June 19 shooting in East Pittsburgh, a small town near the city, after working at the police department for a couple weeks. He turned himself in and was released on $250,000 bond.
Criminal homicide is a broad category that includes manslaughter and murder. Pennsylvania prosecutors typically specify what subsection of homicide they will pursue later in the case.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said his office planned to ask a jury to consider the highest charge of first-degree murder. He argued against releasing Rosfeld on bail.
“You do not shoot someone in the back if they are not a threat to you,” Zappala said.
The car Rose was in had been stopped on suspicion of involvement in a drive-by shooting. But investigators determined that Rose had done nothing “except be in the car,” he said.
Zappala said witnesses described Rose as showing his hands before the shooting, stressing that he did not have a weapon.
Asked by reporters if he saw anything in Rosfeld’s past employment records that raised concerns, Zappala said yes but declined to elaborate.
Rosfeld’s attorney, Patrick Thomassey, said little as he left court but previously told CBS News that the officer was depressed.
He “feels bad about what happened, and it was his first time ever firing his weapon as a police officer,” Thomassey had said.
At a news conference held by the family’s legal team, attorney Fred Rabner questioned why the officer was released without any cash or collateral for his bond.
Another family attorney, Lee Merritt, said the biggest “moment of relief” for relatives was hearing investigators say they knew Rose was not involved in the drive-by shooting.
“If he had survived that incident, as he should have, he wouldn’t have been charged. He had done nothing wrong,” Merritt said.
During the news conference, Rose’s mother, father, grandmother and sister huddled behind a podium wearing shirts calling for justice. Rose’s mother struggled to contain tears as her daughter clasped her tightly.
Her son was shot three times — in the right side of his face, in the elbow and in the back by a bullet that stuck his lung and heart, which was the fatal wound.
Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who has been tracking police shootings and officer conduct for more than a decade, said he was not surprised that Rosfeld was charged so quickly.
Unlike other states, Pennsylvania does not require an indictment from a grand jury before the district attorney can charge someone, but Stinson said other factors likely played a role in quickly bringing charges, including corroborating witnesses and bystander video released on social media.
Stinson said Rosfeld is the 87th non-federal officer charged with manslaughter or murder for an on-duty fatal shooting in the U.S. since the beginning of 2005. Of those charged, 32 have been convicted, 41 have been acquitted and 14 cases are still pending.
Rosfeld pulled over the car in which Rose was a passenger about 15 minutes after reports of a drive-by shooting in nearby North Braddock. In that attack, a 22-year-old man was shot in the abdomen and was treated and released from the hospital.
A witness described a car from that shooting as matching the one Rose was in. A bystander from a nearby home captured video of a portion of the stop and the shooting.
As Rosfeld took the driver of the car into custody, the passenger doors can be seen opening and Rose and another teen are seen running from the car. The officer then fires three shots.
Two guns were found in the car, and an empty gun magazine was found in Rose’s pocket, investigators said.
According to the complaint, the driver of the car, who was operating as an unlicensed cabbie, said he heard shots from the back of the vehicle, where the second teen was sitting. He said Rose was sitting in the front and did not fire any shots during the earlier shooting.
Rosfeld has been on administrative leave since the shooting. He is due back in court July 6.
The charge against the officer comes a day after authorities arrested the second teen. He was identified Wednesday as Zaijuan Hester, who was charged with aggravated assault, possession of a firearm by a minor and other offenses in connection with the drive-by attack.
Rosfeld, of suburban Penn Hills, had worked at several other police departments, including the force at the University of Pittsburgh, during the last seven years.
The district attorney was critical of the East Pittsburgh Police Department’s lack of written policies when it came to handling officer shootings and other aspects of police work. Phone calls to the department and to the mayor’s office were not immediately returned Wednesday.
Lauer reported from Philadelphia.