PITTSBURGH - A white police officer whose gunshot paralyzed a black man during a struggle in a traffic stop two years ago has been placed on desk duty while federal officials investigate, the Pittsburgh police chief said.
Cameron McLay said in a letter to the community distributed Wednesday that he plans to create an office of professional standards within the police following national unrest over police use of force. He said officials also plan to make sure that police training, including training on the use of force, includes what he calls "a component of ethical decision-making."
"We must never lose sight of our ethical standards of conduct as we perform our difficult and, at times, thankless job," he said.
Leon Ford, 21, of Shaler Township, has a pending federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and three white officers involved in the November 2012 confrontation. A jury acquitted him of aggravated assault but deadlocked on misdemeanor counts, and prosecutors have yet to decide whether to retry him.
McLay said that David Derbish, who fired the shot, earlier agreed to work "in a plainclothes capacity with limited public contact" and that he was not being assigned to desk duty "for punitive reasons." But he said he wanted to demonstrate the department's commitment to accountability.
"The incidents in Ferguson and New York highlight how tragic the outcome can become if police lose legitimacy and the public trust becomes too badly damaged," he said.
Ford's attorney, Fred Rabner, applauded the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of the case but noted that the word came two years after the shooting.
"While we certainly feel that this is a step in the right direction, we recognize there is much to be done before complete justice can be fully effectuated," Rabner said.
Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, said that the department should work to improve relations with residents, but that community leaders should advocate for better relations with police.
"It's not a one-sided thing here," he said. "Residents have to make themselves more accountable in dealing with the police. It's a team effort."
Ford was shot five times as the officer tried to pull him out of his running car, later testifying that he feared that Ford was trying to push him out before the car smashed into a light pole. Police and prosecutors contend he resisted and tried to drive away as they sought to confirm his identity at a routine traffic stop. Ford contends that the stop was a pretext because he was mistaken for a wanted gang member named Lamont Ford, and he denied trying to drive away.