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Shooting of fleeing driver by officer in Highland Park investigated

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, 11:58 p.m.

Reaching into a car during a traffic stop can be a bad idea and go terribly wrong for a police officer, law enforcement experts said Monday.

“It's what we call officer-created jeopardy — where you put yourself in a position where you have to use deadly force,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor who specializes in police violence, pursuit driving and training.

Pittsburgh police say Leon Ford, 19, of East Liberty momentarily dragged an officer before the officer jumped into the fleeing vehicle during a stop in Highland Park just before 10 p.m. Sunday. Officer David Derbish opened the passenger side door on Stanton Avenue near Farragut Street when the car sped away, police said.

Derbish was able to pull himself into the passenger side, where he tried to take the vehicle out of gear and grappled with Ford, police said. Derbish fired at Ford — striking him three times in the chest — before the car crashed into a cement block retaining wall, police said.

“The officer believed his life was in danger and he took action,” Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said.

Donaldson would not answer questions regarding police training for traffic stops. Leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 could not be reached.

Ford was in critical but stable condition at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland. Doctors at UPMC Mercy treated Derbish for injuries to his hand, wrist and arm and released him. Officials placed him on administrative and medical leave while detectives investigate the shooting.

Ford has not yet been charged, police said. Their investigation continues, with oversight by the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.

A fleeing motorist dragged a state parole agent whose arm became stuck when he tried to use a Taser on the driver during an attempted arrest in Knoxville in October 2011. In 1996, the driver of a stolen vehicle dragged Pittsburgh Officer John Wilbur for nearly a mile down Fifth Avenue. He shot all three occupants, fatally wounding two.

Alpert said such incidents happen “way too frequently.”

“Most of the times, these guys are trying to do what's right,” Alpert said. “They're trying to protect the public and get this guy off the street but, unfortunately, they make a mistake.”

Lorie Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, said police typically try to reduce the need for deadly force but in this situation, it appears Derbish created the need for force.

“The policing profession now recognizes that in an evaluation of the use of force, we look not just to the last, split-second decision — to shoot or not — but we also look at the tactics the officer used that increased or decreased the likelihood that deadly force would be needed,” Fridell said.

Ball State University police Sgt. David Bell, who oversees officers' training there, said he didn't want to second-guess Derbish's actions. He said Ball State instructs officers to avoid attempting to stop a fleeing vehicle.

“It's best to let them flee, as opposed to trying to stop them with any part of your body,” Bell said. “That's a losing battle. It's impossible.”

Staff writer Matthew Santoni contributed to this report. Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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