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City officer who fired fatal shot was on foot

Driver's family says bullets hit the side of car being chased

Thursday, December 24, 1998

By Torsten Ove and Rona Kobell, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

The city patrolman who shot and killed a Hill District man during a Downtown chase had parked his cruiser on Second Avenue facing the fleeing car and was outside the vehicle when he opened fire.

 
NAACP President Tim Stevens and Bettye Grimmitt, mother of Deron, at a news conference yesterday. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette) 

Although police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. and county police Superintendent Thomas Sturgeon refused to discuss the case yesterday, another person close to the investigation confirmed that Jeffrey Cooperstein's patrol car was facing outbound on Second Avenue as Deron S. Grimmitt Sr.'s Chrysler New Yorker sped inbound during a chase Monday morning.

The source said the patrol car was parked in the far right lane beneath the Boulevard of the Allies near the Public Works Building, and Cooperstein was standing outside when he fired four shots.

One of the shots killed Grimmitt, 32, hitting him in the left side of the head just above the ear.

Grimmitt's family said the shots struck Grimmitt's car from the side, not head-on, contradicting the officer's attorney, who said Cooperstein acted in self-defense because he was about to be run down.

The official close to the investigation also said the fatal shot appeared to have come from the side, although he said tracing the trajectory and behavior of bullets is difficult, and the path of the slugs won't be known until ballistics test results are available.

 
 

Last night, members of the Grimmitt family sat somberly through a news conference at NAACP headquarters in the Hill District.

Although they spoke to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Tuesday, the family declined to comment, instead issuing a prepared statement declaring Grimmitt's death to be a violation of his civil rights.

"The death of Deron was unnecessary, and the facts in this case will prove that," Grimmitt's sister, Cynthia Grimmitt, read from the statement.

"We view this death as possibly containing some very serious civil rights violations," said Tim Stevens, the president of the Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Obviously, the death is very serious, but how it occurred may have even been more serious."

After Grimmitt was shot Monday morning, his car continued for about a block until it hit a concrete abutment beneath the Boulevard of the Allies and crashed into a parking meter in front of a restaurant on Court Place.

Grimmitt died of the gunshot wound at 9:40 p.m. at Mercy Hospital, about 18 hours after the shooting. His brother, Curtis L. Grimmitt, 34, was injured in the crash and underwent surgery at Mercy yesterday.

Second Avenue is four lanes wide in the area where Cooperstein's car was parked, so Grimmitt's car had room to get by. It is not known why Cooperstein's car was parked there or if he had been involved in the chase.

Cooperstein, 43, is widely believed to be associated with -- or may even be -- The Blue Knight, the anonymous writer who for 18 months has used his own Web site to circulate his views on developments in the department.

A former patrolman in Loveland, Colo., who worked as a security guard during the 1992 Pittsburgh Press strike, he has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation by county police.

The details of the chase are still sketchy, and yesterday Sturgeon again refused to talk about the case, except to say the county investigation will likely take longer than he at first predicted.

At a Monday news conference, he said he anticipated the case might be wrapped up in three days, but yesterday he said it would probably take until Wednesday because of the Christmas holiday.

County homicide detectives are handling the investigation at the city's request, which is standard procedure. A city ordinance passed in 1997 requires Pittsburgh police to contact an outside agency to investigate any shooting between a city police officer and a member of the public.

An FBI investigation, launched Tuesday to determine whether Grimmitt's civil rights were violated, also is routine, according to county police. Inspector Daniel Colaizzi, who heads the county homicide squad, said FBI agents conduct their own investigation of every fatal police shooting in the country, independent of local police.

Stevens said he and others from the NAACP met yesterday with McNeilly, who told them he has formed a board made up of an assistant chief and two commanders to investigate Grimmitt's death.

The NAACP has also written to Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht requesting an open inquest, and to Harry Litman, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, requesting a full investigation.

Although NAACP officials said they were happy the FBI and the Allegheny County Police were investigating Grimmitt's death, many at the press conference seemed to have already made up their minds about it.

"The cover-ups, the things being swept under the rug, these are nothing new. We need to get this to stop," said Harvey Adams, a retired police officer and head of the NAACP's police affairs committee.

The Grimmitts and their supporters chanted "Amen" and applauded as Stevens spoke of driving down Smithfield Street the day after Grimmitt's death when he noticed a police car with its lights flashing.

"I'm 53. And what came to my mind is, how many young blacks are in that situation, and in particular how vulnerable they are," he said, raising his voice. "We should not fear death at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us.

"This must stop," he said. "It's unacceptable to any human being of any race, creed, or color."



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