By Carl Takei
Antwon Rose Jr. was a Black 17-year-old honors student at Woodland Hills High School near Pittsburgh. He died last week because an East Pittsburgh police officer shot him three times from behind. Rose’s story is at once terrifying and all too familiar, in a nation where hundreds of people of color die from police violence every year and where even 10-year old Black children are so afraid of police that their first reaction is to run even if they have done nothing wrong.
On the day he died, Rose was one of two passengers in a “jitney”— a sort of unofficial taxi — in East Pittsburgh, a suburb just outside of Pittsburgh. An East Pittsburgh police officer pulled over the car because it matched the description of a car that drove away from the scene of a shooting 13 minutes earlier.
According to an official police statement, the officer ordered the driver out and directed him to the ground. A cell phone video taken by a bystander shows what happened next. As a second police cruiser parked behind the first cruiser, Rose and the other passenger got out of the right-hand side of the jitney and started running away from the officers. While the other passenger was eventually charged with a crime, the district attorney has stated, “Antwon Rose didn’t do anything in North Braddock other than be in that vehicle.”
Less than two seconds later, the first officer gunned down Rose, who was unarmed. The other passenger continued running away. Later that night, the jitney driver was questioned and released. Since then, community members and people from across the nation have taken to Pennsylvania’s streets in daily protests calling for justice for Antwon Rose Jr.
On June 27, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala announced that he is charging Officer Michael Rosfeld —who shot Rose — with murder. He also made clear that Rose had not committed any criminal act and had in fact held his hands above his head — showing he was unarmed — when he began running. District Attorney Zappala deserves credit for taking swift action to hold Rosfeld and his department accountable.
But the criminal charge for Rosfeld is only the first step in accountability.
In his press conference announcing the charges, District Attorney Zappala stated that the East Pittsburgh Police Department has no policy governing use of force. That is a gross dereliction of duty by police department leadership, especially when the Police Executive Research Forum and other organizations have provided clear guidance to police departments on use-of-force policies that help prevent unnecessary loss of life. The department must work with community members to adopt a use-of-force policy that makes the sanctity of human life a top priority and incorporates best practices to prevent unnecessary police violence.
The East Pittsburgh Police Department also needs to take responsibility for how its decision to hire Rosfeld contributed to Rose’s death. Rosfeld left his previous job (the third police department he’d left in seven years), at the University of Pittsburgh Police Department, after authorities “discovered discrepancies” between Rosfeld’s sworn statement and other evidence — in other words, that he was dishonest. Yet the East Pittsburgh Police Department chose to hire Rosfeld, and he went on to kill Antwon Rose Jr. just hours after being sworn in to his new job.
Police departments hiring the rejects and washouts from other departments is a nationwide problem, and it puts the public at risk.
As we know, Rosfeld is not the first such officer to receive nationwide attention for gunning down a Black child. In Cleveland, Officer Timothy Loehmann — the officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice — was described by supervisors at a previous department as being unable to “follow simple directions” and that he showed a “pattern of a lack of maturity, indiscretion and not following instructions.” He was rejected by at least five different police agencies in the region. But then the Cleveland Police Department hired him and gave him a gun. Tamir Rice died alone on a playground because of the department’s negligence.
We give police officers one of the most significant powers, and certainly the most final power, we confer on the government — the power to kill. Police departments need to exercise immense care in deciding who will wield this power and how they wield it. The East Pittsburgh Police Department has done neither.
The ACLU is supporting the community’s call for justice for Antwon Rose Jr. and will be working with the community on reform proposals to prevent other young people of color from suffering his fate. The East Pittsburgh Police Department and the elected officials who oversee it have a decision to make: Will they stand with the community, or will they stand in the way? For justice, there is only one answer.
Carl Takei is the Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality