Tragic deaths of Jonny Gammage and Antwon Rose twice put Pittsburgh in the spotlight |

Tragic deaths of Jonny Gammage and Antwon Rose twice put Pittsburgh in the spotlight

Deb Erdley
Tribune-Review file Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A woman raises her in front of stopped traffic after more than 150 people took over the Parkway East in both directions, Thursday, June 22, 2018 to protest East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld East fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, a Woodland Hills High School honors student.
Tribune-Review file Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A demonstrator wears a button memorializing black motorist Jonny Gammage during a candlelight vigil in Brentwood, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. Gammage died 19 years ago from asphyxiation due to pressure applied to the chest after an altercation with the police.
Tribune-Review file
Ogechi Chieke (left) and Faith Tucker (second from left) march during a Jonny Gammage rally at the City County Building.
Tribune-Review file
Jonny Gammage
Tribune-Review file
Jonny Gammage supporters march down Centre Avenue towards the Allegheny Courthouse after gathering at Freedom Corner on November 11, 1995. Once just a place for demonstrations, speeches, and the start of a march council members are trying to decide who should be responsible for maintenance of the Freedom Corner monument, especially after recent vandalism.
Retired Brentwood, Pa., police officer Milton Mullholland leaves the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh with his wife after a mistrial was called on Saturday, Dec. 13, 1997, because of a deadlocked jury in his and Baldwin, Pa. police officer Michael Albert’s second trial on charges related to the death of motorist Jonny Gammage, Jr. who died in a fight after a traffic stop in October 1995.
Tribune-Review file
Ogechi Chieke, 16, of Homewood, holds a candle during the Jonny Gammage rally at the City County Building.
Officer Michael Albert, right, is shown in this Oct. 15, 1996 file photo. Albert and Brentwood Lt. Milton Mulholland , who are accused of causing the death of black motorist Jonny Gammage during a traffic stop on Oct. 12, 1995, will be tried a third time in the death of Gammage a prosecutor announced Thursday, Jan. 8, 1998.
Tribune-Review file
Protesters walk across the Roberto Clemente Bridge after congregating at the Wood St. T-Station Downtown protesting the shooting death of Antwon Rose by East Pittsburgh police on June 22, 2018.
Tribune-Review file
Antwon Rose II
Tribune-Review file
Lorenzo Rulli, of Mckees Rocks stands in protest at Grant Steet and Sixth Avenue downtown, Tuesday, June 26, 2018, to protest East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, a Woodland Hills High School honors student.

Western Pennsylvania over the span of nearly a quarter century has twice found itself at center stage of national outrage involving the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers.

The 1995 death of Jonny Gammage in the era of Rodney King and the L.A. riots focused national attention on the region. Such public ire was not seen again locally at the same level until last summer’s death of Antwon Rose II, which came on the heels of similar high-profile cases in Ferguson, Mo.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Baton Rouge, La.

Three police officers charged in the Gammage case walked free after jury trials.

More than two decades later, expectations for justice are high as former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld heads to trial, charged with criminal homicide for shooting and killing Rose, 17, on June 19.

Rose was among 998 Americans — both black and white — who died last year after being shot by police.

Rosfeld is among a much smaller group. He is one of just 98 police officers charged with murder or manslaughter in such deaths over the last 14 years.

Philip Stinson, a former police officer and attorney, is a Bowling Green State University criminology professor who has tracked those numbers since 2005. During that period, he said about 900 to 1,000 people died every year of gunshot wounds from on-duty police officers.

While charges against officers in such shootings are rare, convictions are even rarer. Of the 98 officers charged, three were convicted of murder; 32 others were found guilty of manslaughter or lesser crimes.

On one level, Stinson said when charges are filed and a case goes to trial, justice is done regardless of the outcome. But even the former policeman hesitates to say all involved will feel that way.

“Many would say justice has not been done where there is not a conviction,” Stinson said. “You have victims and family members who live in these communities, and they are very concerned about these issues. It is perfectly reasonable for them to feel justice has not been done.”

Little appears to have changed in the criminal justice system over the last 14 years, Stinson said.

“I think people are paying more attention to it. It is national and international news these days instead of just a local story,” he said. “We see little increase in the number of officers charged, but I think prosecutors are under pressure to make sure investigations are conducted and that now they often have to explain their rationale when they don’t charge.”

This month, state and local authorities declined to prosecute two Sacramento, Calif., police officers involved in the March 2018 shooting death of a 22-year-old black man. Federal authorities have since said they will conduct an independent civil rights investigation.

State and local authorities concluded the officers were justified when they shot Stephon Clark seven times as he ran through his grandmother’s backyard holding a cellphone after smashing windows on several parked cars and throwing a cement block through a neighbor’s glass door.

Eroded trust

Countless videos showing unarmed black men dying at the hands of police have left a mark, said Karlos Hill, a history professor who chairs the department of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“It’s absolutely the reason we have a Black Lives Matter movement,” Hill said.

Police shootings and excessive use of force further erode the historically less-than-trustful relationship between the black community and law enforcement when no one is held to account, Hill said.

An East Pittsburgh resident captured a cellphone video of Rosfeld shooting Rose as the teen ran away. The video went viral on social media, sparked days of protests and shouts of “Justice for Antwon Rose,” as protesters closed first the streets of East Pittsburgh and then the Parkway East.

No such video existed of Gammage’s death. Nonetheless, it sparked protests and demands for justice for the young black businessman.

Tim Stevens, a longtime Pittsburgh civil rights activist, in 1995 served as president of the local NAACP. He joined local ACLU officials to lead peaceful protests, which saw hundreds of marchers silently circle the Allegheny County Courthouse and the City-County Building in Pittsburgh to protest Gammage’s death.

“It was profound,” said Stevens, now CEO of the Pittsburgh-based Black Political Empowerment Project, or B-PEP.

Pittsburghers filed complaints of police brutality that led to the Police Citizens Review Board being created and a five-year consent decree in which the federal government had oversight over city police.

It also led to the creation of a Pittsburgh Black and White Reunion. Stevens said the group, today known as the Racial Justice Summit, advocates for racial justice.

Some believe the only justice received by blacks who die at the hands of police comes through civil lawsuits rather than criminal proceedings, Hill said.

That was route the family of Michael Ellerbee took when authorities declined to file charges against a Pennsylvania State Police trooper who shot the 11-year-old black child from Uniontown, Fayette County, on Christmas Eve 2002.

Trooper Samuel Nassan shot and killed Ellerbee as he ran from a stolen SUV after leading police on a chase.

A jury in 2008 awarded Ellerbee’s family a record $28 million in a federal civil rights suit. The sum was reduced when state police agreed to drop their appeals and pay $12.5 million a few months later.

“We as a society have substituted payouts for real accountability,” Hill said.

Last summer, it took authorities six days to file charges against Michael Rosfeld. It took three months for charges to be filed against police officers involved in Gammage’s death.

Gammage, 31, died after Brentwood police stopped him just over the line in the city of Pittsburgh after noticing him braking frequently as he drove a Jaguar through the borough. The car belonged to his cousin, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Ray Seals.

Police officers from Brentwood, Baldwin and Whitehall tackled Gammage, handcuffed and pinned him on the ground in an attempt to subdue him. Gammage died of suffocation.

Authorities charged three officers with voluntary manslaughter. One officer was acquitted at trial. Charges against two others were dropped after two mistrials.

Monroeville defense lawyer Patrick Thomassey, who represented Brentwood police Lt. Milton Mulholland through two mistrials in the Gammage case, is representing Rosfeld more than two decades later.

Unlike Mulholland, Rosfeld has been charged with criminal homicide in Rose’s death. The count holds possible outcomes ranging from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

Changing the system

Stevens said the severity of the charge indicates Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala is taking such issues seriously.

But national statistics that show how few officers were ever charged in the thousands of police shootings over the last 14 years are “beyond troubling,” Stevens said.

The Antwon Rose case suggests a critical need for regional police forces and better training, Stevens said. Rose was shot and killed hours after Rosfeld was sworn in as part of the tiny East Pittsburgh Police Department, which has since disbanded.

He said his group has submitted a 35-page recommendation to authorities asking, among other things, that small police departments request training from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police — one of six departments across the country trained in recognizing implicit racial bias under an Obama administration initiative. Stevens was optimistic that those recommendations have been well received.

Whether they can head off future deaths is another question.

James Nolan, a professor of sociology and anthropology at West Virginia University and a former FBI agent, said the high number of police shootings across the country every year reflects a deeper issue.

“The culture of American policing leads to broken trust with the community and the development in officers of a disposition that is overly suspicious, hyper-vigilant and overly fixated on ‘making it home safely’ at all costs,” Nolan said. “Shifting measures of success from law enforcement outputs such as number of arrests and drug and gun seizures to safe, strong community outcomes would change the disposition and logic of officers doing policing work.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.