Monday, March 16, 2009

A public service scrutinized

Much will be made about the fact that a state trooper who fired on a man shot to death during a drunken-driving patrol in Pittsburgh over the weekend was the same man who shot and killed a 12-year-old boy in Uniontown in December 2002. One can only imagine how breathless the Pittsburgh TV reporters will be when making their reports. Fact is, Trooper Samuel Nassan III, in both cases, was doing his job under highly difficult circumstances. In the most recent incident, Hassan was part of an operation aimed at catching drunken drivers early Sunday morning on Pittsburgh's South Side. Anyone who has been to the South Side knows that it's typically full of drunks, so police probably chose the location wisely. According to police reports cited by the Associated Press, Nassan and a city police officer were in an unmarked cruiser when they saw an SUV operated by Nicholas Haniotakis, 32, of Pittsburgh, driving the wrong way down a South Side street with its lights off. Officers said Haniotakis' car nearly hit the police vehicle, then sped away in reverse before hitting a parked car. The officers approached, and Haniotakis reportedly refused to show them his hands, then backed up, hit the police cruiser and nearly struck one of the officers. He then began to turn the vehicle around and head toward the officers again. That's when he was fatally shot, either by Nassan or the city policeman. In brief, he got exactly what he deserved. And it may sound harsh, but the same statement could be applied to 12-year-old Michael Ellerbe, above, who was shot to death on Christmas Eve 2002 after fleeing in the dark from a stolen SUV that police where chasing in Uniontown. The troopers said Nassan fired at Ellerbe only after his partner's gun snagged on a fence and discharged, leading Nassan to believe his partner had been shot by the youth. The troopers were never criminally charged, but Ellerbe's father, sadly, got $12.5 million from the state in a wrongful death suit. My opinion is that Michael Ellerbe or anyone else who runs from police puts themselves in a position to have bad things happen to them. And am I the only one who thinks that had Michael Ellerbe not died that night, maybe, just maybe, he might have come in contact with authorities again? And again? And again? I sided with Nassan in that case. I'll do the same this time. Oh, I almost forgot. Our "victim" in the latest case, Nicholas Haniotakis, was sentenced to prison for trying to run over a cop during a suburban Pittsburgh traffic stop in 2005. Court records also show he had a decade-long record of arrests that included crimes such as ethnic intimidation and aggravated assault. What a great loss to society, huh?



Blogger Mike Jones said...

Brant, I think there is a serious difference between a drunk driver ramming police cars on a busy street and a 12-year-old punk running of foot away from cops after stealing a car. It's one thing to say bad things can happen when people break the law, it's another thing to say the 12-year-old DESERVED to get killed. I think you should re-evaluate your post.

March 16, 2009 at 5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Typical Brant overstatement. We know you like to get a rise out of people, but this is getting a little odd. A 12 year old child died and he could have changed his life. Are you now arguing that you know what his life would have been like? Are you saying that there was simply no hope?

March 16, 2009 at 10:29 PM  
Blogger Brant said...

All I'm saying is that if you flee police in the dark, you greatly increase the chance that something bad is going to happen to you, and if it does, whether you're 12 or 72, I really have no sympathy. I've had no reluctance to criticize police when I think they've done wrong. Years ago, I wrote a newspaper column about what I considered the murder of Jonny Gammage, who died because he was "driving while black." But in most instances, I'm going to support the police. They have a job that not many of us would want to tackle. Like any humans, sometimes they make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes cost someone their life, but in a lot of those cases, the life would not be lost if the person had just complied with what the police told them to do. And, yes, the 12-year-old could have turned his life around. I'm just saying that there was probably a greater chance that a kid who is riding around in a stolen car at age 12 is headed for a life of crime. I'm guessing that of kids who commit serious crimes such as assaults, car thefts and robberies at age 12, the majority go on to commit adult crimes. Enough of this PC bull crap. Admit reality, please.

March 17, 2009 at 7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So we are to be judged and killed by statistical probability. That is what we are arguing for. The use of deadly force, shooting into the dark at children is wrong. That is why the state had to pay. Car theft by children does not warrant deadly force, PERIOD.

March 17, 2009 at 8:34 AM  
Blogger Ellipses said...

He wasn't killed by statistical probability... he was killed because he was running from the cops in the dark, a gun discharged, and one cop thought he was returning fire.

It's an unfortunate situation... but can you say that the police officer that shot him was not justified by the circumstances to do so? It's dark. You are chasing someone out of a stolen car. You don't know that he is 12 years old. You don't know if he is armed or not. You hear a gunshot. You shoot. Ah, damn... killed an unarmed kid. Yeah... it sucks... And I wouldn't go so far as to say the kid "deserved" it... but it is a logical conclusion to the scenario.

Would it have been better if it worked out a different way? Sure.

Whether the kid would be destined for a life of crime or not is up in the air... how many upstanding citizens do you know who have stories of delinquency and debauchery from their childhood that make you surprised that they are successful members of the community?

Sure, the kid may have ended up a menace to society... but I imagine that everyone involved would rather him have the chance to screw up his life than be dead.

March 17, 2009 at 8:48 AM  
Blogger Ellipses said...

Shucks... actually, did the officer know that he was pursuing a 12 year old kid who was probably unarmed?

Who reported the car stolen? Was it the parents? Did they indicate that the person who stole it was 12 years old?

March 17, 2009 at 8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

by Andy Sheehan

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There are new developments in a story that shocked and saddened our region.

Michael Ellerbe was an unarmed 12-year old, when two state troopers shot him to death in Uniontown on Christmas Eve three years ago.

The troopers were cleared but now a lead investigator is questioning their version of events.

KDKA Investigator Andy Sheehan reports that lead investigator says he lost his job for questioning the official version of events.

In court papers, that lead investigator alleges a police cover up, citing two key pieces of evidence that he says, don't add up.

On Christmas Eve 2002, 12-year-old Michael Ellerbe bails out of a stolen car in Uniontown and is chased on foot by two state troopers.

After a few hundred yards, one trooper raises his service revolver and shoots -- hitting the boy in the back, killing him.

Three years later, Ellerbe's father still wants to know why.

"I just want justice," said Michael Hickenbottom, Ellerbe's father. "I just want what's right. Right is right and wrong is wrong and this was definitely wrong."

Ellerbe was a small boy -- only five feet tall. He had no gun. In his pocket, $1.12 in change, a small pocket knife and three Pokemon cards. And yet the trooper who fired said he believed Ellerbe to be a threat.

According to state police: Troopers Samuel Nassan and Juan Curry were chasing the boy when Ellerbe hopped a fence.

Trooper Curry scaled the same fence and fell, and his gun accidentally went off.

At an inquest, Trooper Nassan, testified that seeing Curry fall and hearing the shot, he believed Ellerbe had shot Curry.

And so, he raised his gun and shot the boy.

A coroner's jury and later the U.S. Attorney agreed it was a tragic mistake.

"The death of child is a tragedy, but there is absolutely no evidence in this case to support a federal criminal charge," said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan in 2004.

But former state police sergeant Jim Baranowski claims there is a cover-up.

He was the officer in charge of the scene the night of the Ellerbe shooting.

In court documents Baranowski says he didn't believe the troopers' story, and as a result, was kicked off the case.

Then, despite a near spotless record, he began getting disciplinary citations and was eventually forced out of the state police.

"They told him you either get out or you're fired," said Ellerbe Family Attorney Joel Sansone. "And all because he stood up and said this is a bad shoot and you're covering up the truth."
State Police are declining all comment on both the Ellerbe case and this wrongful termination suit brought by Baranowski.

Baranowski also declined to be interviewed.

But he's spoken at length with the Ellerbe Family attorneys who say that among other things, Baranowksi challenged Trooper Curry's story that his gun discharged close to his face when he went over the fence.

"Baranowski ordered a swab of Curry's face which did not show any discharge of powder burns. He also ordered a fence swab which found no powder burns either. And that can't be so if the gun went off as Curry said it did."

Another inconsistency: Trooper Nassan testified he was nine feet behind Curry when he shot Ellerbe and yet his shell casing was found at the fence line.

Tests conducted by Ellerbe's attorneys show that the shell should have ejected backwards -- and that the casing should have been at least 15 feet behind the fence line.

Sansone says he can reach only one conclusion.

"There's no question in my mind that Nassan was at the fence line with Curry when they both fired," he said.

Four days after he was shot and killed, Michael Ellerbe was buried and, as he did then, his father is still asking questions he says for his own sake and the sake of his son.

"We wanted some answers," he said. "We wanted to know what really happened. And we wanted some justice -- justice for my son so he can rest in peace."

These two cases are winding their way to trial.

Typical of police in these situations.. at first they would not even admit that Curry fell.. hence the judgement and the taxpayers paying..

March 17, 2009 at 5:05 PM  
Blogger Brant said...

Police have to make split-second decisions under circumstances you and I can only imagine. Do they sometimes make mistakes? Certainly. But you're a lot less likely to be the victim of a mistake if you don't run from them in the dark. But of course, to some people, the police are always wrong, and they're the ones who want to holler "police brutality" and file lawsuits.

March 18, 2009 at 6:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then why the delay in releasing the facts initially.. Some people always want to believe the police when the victim is less than perfect. Some people never want to believe that the police can be wrong.
See Brant, these type of generalizations can be done by anyone.
Investigation (not the OR's strong point) requires an open mind, not a closed one.

March 18, 2009 at 8:35 AM  
Blogger Brant said...

It's not a generalization. It's a fact. Some people - not all, some - want to blame the police and are quick to cry brutality and abuse the court system with their baseless lawsuits. I would point you toward Al Sharpton and the Tawana Brawley hoax as an example.

March 18, 2009 at 9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do I need to name every time police brutality has happened to counter the argument?
One situation does not make the other, hence why an open mind is needed and actual investigation, not the type of hype that talk radio has brought us.

March 18, 2009 at 9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that shooting someone over a car theft is total overreaction. It's a CAR. Is that worth a person's life - no matter who that person is, saint or sinner? And the car was left sitting there making for an easy police recovery.

March 18, 2009 at 12:31 PM  
Blogger Brant said...

It sure cuts down on the recidivism.

March 18, 2009 at 12:54 PM  
Blogger Ellipses said...

That's just... jeez :-)

It's a heck of a lot easier to justify the one and done rule with murderers and child molesters... but a 12 year old on a joy ride? Not so much...

March 18, 2009 at 1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Until you have been a cop and faced with the things they are faced with daily, you have no right to judge or say how you would respond. Admittedly, there have been and will continue to be police over-reactions and outright abuses. And racial and ethnic profiling exists and always will. But how come no one ever asks someone who kills a cop, "Why didn't you give him a chance to drop his gun and let you run away?"

March 19, 2009 at 11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea that one should not judge the work of police in a free society is:
1. Dangerous, as so aptly put by "Who watches the Watchmen"
2. Foolish (see reason one)
3. Illogical. It is the same argument that some state for wars, only veterans should talk, or abortions only women should talk. It is a free society and in particular the use of police force is an issue of public concern. Whether one has been a police office or not is not relevant to the use or misuse of force. In fact, a former police background can lead to insider treatment for officers. That is the reason Allegheny County was forced to change their system to allow and enforce civilian review.
Someone must watch those that have the use of deadly force and it cannot be those that possess it. It means that we no longer live in a free society, but a police state.

March 25, 2009 at 12:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brant, thank you for finally saying "out-loud" what alot of people have been thinking. I don't care who you are, how old you are, if you do the crime, prepare to do the time. What would have happened if that 12 yr old boy would have killed someone with that SUV while trying to escape from police? He knew what he was doing when he stole the car and the chances he was taking, bad things happen, but the police are there to protect and serve us, as difficult as it is that this young man was only 12 he was still a criminal and the police acted accordingly.

March 25, 2009 at 12:57 AM  
Anonymous Nicole said...

I think the post is right and its good to see someone with common sense! Helloooo this kid was in a stolen vehicle... then runs from the police. Get a grip on reality here. If he was 42... no big deal right. But because he's 12 its excusable. If the kid is taking part in stealing cars when he's 12 HE WAS NOT GOING TO BE SOMETHING GREAT! He was not a contributor to society... no loss. ANd his parents get 28 MILLION DOLLARS! For their criminal son getting shot! Are you kidding me?! They are bums.. look how they go for their interviews.. scraggly clothes, teeth, hair. Would Michael Ellerbe ever have produced 28 million in his life? No. So WHYYYYY do they get that money. I'm discusted with our judicial system. DISCUSTED!

April 2, 2009 at 10:20 AM  

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