Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala says a Pittsburgh police officer who shot and killed a man in Wilkinsburg in April was justified in opening fire.
Officials say Adrian Williams, 29, who was killed in the shooting, had led police on an early-morning high-speed chase that started in Homewood and ended in Wilkinsburg, when he crashed the car he was driving and then ran through yards with a handgun.
Zappala said at least 12 other officers were at the scene and had been involved in the chase. Officer Christopher Kertis shot Williams six times.
“You’re justified in the use of deadly force if a weapon is in play and you are trying to stop somebody from effectuating escape and that person is a danger to the community,” Zappala said. “In this case, he was a danger to the community in the manner in which he drove his vehicle and he becomes more dangerous to the community when he exits with a handgun and engages the police.”
The chase started when some officers patrolling a high-crime area of Homewood spotted a handgun on the floor of a car near the nightclub Serenity, according to officials. The car was registered to a woman who had some sort of relationship with Williams and also had a license to carry. The officers let other patrolling officers know about the gun.
Officials sat that at around 3 a.m., Williams left the club and got into the car. When police tried to stop him, he took off, leading police with their lights and sirens through a high-speed chase down Penn Avenue.
Zappala said some of the police cars involved in the chase at that point were traveling between 80 and 100 miles per hour. He said at that point two deadly vehicles were potentially at play: “a handgun in the car and the vehicle itself.”
In Wilkinsburg, Williams ran through a series of backyards, Zappala said. Kertis started running after him when Williams tripped, fell and rolled and continued to move. Recorded video from a police car shows Kertis yelling at Williams to drop the gun. When Williams didn’t, Kertis opened fire.
Four of the bullets were fired after Williams dropped the gun, which Zappala chalked up to reaction time.
Kertis graduated from the police academy in 2012. In the time he’s been an officer, he’s been shot at three times.
In 2012, Kertis had been one of 13 officers involved in arresting Williams after a chase that began in the same area, ended with Williams and two others throwing guns and drugs out of car window. Zappala said because of this history, they investigated.
“It stands on its own," Zappala said. "We didn’t know what it meant, what these prior matters meant and wanted to see if there was a pattern if there was something animus if there was some relationship ... anything that would tie those prior matters together.”
Zappala said he doesn’t know what potential crimes led Williams to flee in April. He had practically no alcohol in his systemm, so he wasn’t running from a DUI, the district attorney said.
“When a police officer activates his lights for a traffic stop and you take off, it's called fleeing and eluding," Zappala said. "The speeds that they reached make that a felony, so you have felony fleeing and eluding. Until he takes the gun out of the car and actually possesses it, I’m not sure that he’s committed a crime dealing with the possession of that weapon. Once he takes the gun and runs with it, he’s committed another felony.”
Zappala said Kertis was justified in opening fire based on Pennsylvania statutes.
The analysis under state law section 508 and section 505 of the crimes code. Under 508, the key consideration is the possession of a weapon. Under federal law, there is a distinction when a weapon is in play for Fourth Amendment considerations.
“You can’t just posesss the weapon," Zappala said. "The weapon has to actually be a threat. Under Pennsylvania law, if the weapon becomes a threat, then you analyze the police officer’s conduct under section 505, which is self defense. Under either statute under state law, I found that the officer’s actions were justified.”
Zappala said this is different from the high-profile Jordan Miles case, in which plain-clothes officers in an unmarked car stopped an unarmed teenager and beat him terribly because they thought he was armed.
“This is police officers in marked cars … using lights,” he said.
The Williams case has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s office for a federal-level review.