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Officers who fired at car in South Side chase cleared for duty

Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Friday that it's “way too early” to judge if Pittsburgh police were justified when they opened fire on a crowded South Side street at the end of a car chase.

Zappala said his office is reviewing the actions of the five police officers, who were working off-duty security details at the time of the incident early Sunday. One of the officers' bullets hit Lena Davenport — the passenger in the car fleeing police — in the right eye, causing brain damage, family members said. The car was moving at the time, Zappala said.

Another bullet grazed a pedestrian. One officer fired at the wrong car, which Zappala said was a “problem.”

Davenport's son, Donald Burris Jr., 32, of Carnegie, was driving when police said he ran a red light in Homestead and took off when Homestead police tried to pull him over.

Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said the officers — Steve Matakovich, Calvin Kennedy, Igor Boyko, Louis Schweitzer and Thomas Gorecki — have been cleared to return to duty.

“This is not an indication of our final findings of this incident. It is a determination by a mental health professional that they are psychologically fit for duty,” Donaldson said.

Zappala said the car was driving recklessly between 45 and 50 mph as Burris and Davenport fled to a busy Carson Street just as bars were letting out at 1:45 a.m. The chase was becoming more and more dangerous as it reached the densely populated nightlife area, Zappala said.

Zappala said that Burris told police he was trying to buy crack cocaine for his mother prior to running the red light but that he was ripped off. As Burris was leaving, he ran the red light and police tried to pull him over, Zappala said.

“He said his mom tells him, ‘You didn't do anything wrong. Take off,'” Zappala said.

That account sparked a sharp rebuke from Davenport's brother, William Davenport, 52, of the Hill District.

“He never said anything like that. He can't stand drugs,” William Davenport said of Burris. “That's not true. They came up with that story days later. He's so against drugs.

“As for (police) reviewing the case, they're just trying to cover their backs. They're grasping at straws. It's ridiculous.”

Lena Davenport, 49, of Wilkinsburg remains hospitalized. The wound prompted multiple surgeries and partial removal of her skull.

Chief Nate Harper and a union official have defended the officers' actions. Officers believed Burris endangered pedestrians and police, using the car as a weapon in a congested area, Harper has said.

Police charged Burris with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and fleeing an officer. He is in the county jail awaiting a Jan. 23 preliminary hearing.

J. Kerrington Lewis, who is representing Lena Davenport, said his client “is in no condition to respond to what the DA is reporting.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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