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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)

February 9, 1999


Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht’s recommendation that a Pittsburgh police officer be charged with homicide in a fatal shooting not only sets up a likely courtroom conflict but also ensures an escalation of ongoing tensions over police conduct.

After reviewing evidence and testimony presented last month during an inquest, Wecht yesterday called on District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to charge Officer Jeffrey Cooperstein in the Dec. 21 shooting death of Deron S. Grimmitt Sr. following a police chase. A recommendation by the coroner is not binding but traditionally has been accorded great weight by prosecutors.  Zappala would not comment yesterday on Wecht’s recommendation, but he said he plans to hold a news conference tomorrow or Thursday to announce his decision.

While Zappala weighs his decision, public debate over whether police treat black citizens fairly and whether the police bureaucracy treats, supervises and disciplines its officers fairly will return to the forefront.

Harvey Adams, a retired city and Housing Authority police officer and spokesman for the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, yesterday said he welcomed Wecht’s decision and said he hoped Zappala would seek to convict Cooperstein on murder charges.

Adams said he and the NAACP viewed Wecht’s recommendation, as well as Zappala’s recent decision to charge former city Housing Authority Officer John Charmo with homicide in the 1995 fatal shooting of Jerry Jackson, as long-awaited signs that police are being held to a higher standard of accountability.

Heartened by those cases, Adams said the NAACP will call for reopening other cases in which police officers were cleared of wrongdoing in fatal shootings. The NAACP, long a vocal critic of police relations with the city’s black residents, has been monitoring the Cooperstein and Charmo cases.

Fraternal Order of Police President Marshall “Smokey” Hynes said he was not surprised by Wecht’s ruling but said the FOP will continue to support Cooperstein. Hynes, a retired city homicide detective, said he has been asked by Cooperstein’s attorney not to comment about the case, but he said he expects Cooperstein will be exonerated if the case goes to trial.

Hynes also announced the police union has rescheduled for Thursday a rally intended to show support for police officers who have been injured or assaulted in the line of duty. He said the event, planned for noon in Market Square, was not called in support of Cooperstein.

The march initially had been set for the morning of Jan. 28, the same day the coroner’s inquest began in the Grimmitt case. The FOP postponed the rally at the request of City Council members but has decided to proceed with it even though Hynes acknowledged that it was likely to provoke criticism as well as support for police.

Like the Cooperstein and Charmo cases, the rally has become a symbol of tensions between western Pennsylvania’s police and its black residents, which have grown since the 1995 death of motorist Jonny Gammage after he was pulled over by suburban police in Overbrook.

Those divisions even extend into the ranks of the police themselves, said city Detective Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman, president of the Guardians, an organization of black officers. But she, too, said she believed Wecht’s recommendation coupled with the Charmo case signaled “a new day. Wecht’s recommendation yesterday was the second time in a week that he called for homicide charges to be filed against a local police officer who was involved in a fatal shooting. Last week, Wecht recommended and Zappala agreed that Charmo should face homicide charges in the 1995 shooting death of Jerry Jackson in the Armstrong Tunnels.

If Zappala again follows through on Wecht’s recommendation, it will be the first time in recent memory that a city police officer has been charged with homicide as a result of events that occurred while on duty.

Speaking yesterday before a courtroom packed with Grimmitt’s relatives, police brass and officials from the NAACP, Wecht said he believed Cooperstein, 43, was not justified in fatally shooting Grimmitt on Second Avenue, near the city’s Public Works Building.   Grimmitt, 32, died of a gunshot wound to the head. His brother, Curtis, 34, was injured when the car crashed into a building on Court Place after the shooting.

Wecht said he reached his conclusion after reviewing a report compiled by attorney John L. Doherty, who presided at the inquest. Doherty’s report summarized evidence and testimony presented, including statements that contradicted the account Cooperstein gave to police.

Wecht said he was not influenced by news accounts of Cooperstein’s problems while he worked for a police force in Colorado, or of the widespread belief that Cooperstein is the “Blue Knight,” the Internet author who frequently criticized police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. and department policies. Cooperstein has denied being the Blue Knight; the Web site of the same name has not been updated in recent weeks and does not mention the Grimmitt shooting.

Cooperstein did not testify at the inquest, invoking his right against self-incrimination. But after the shooting, Cooperstein told police he fired four times at Grimmitt’s Chrysler New Yorker because Grimmitt was about to run him down.

Cooperstein also pointed out to an investigating officer what he contended was a bullet hole in Grimmitt’s windshield, but police later determined that no hole existed there.

Instead, investigators testified during the inquest that the bullet that killed Grimmitt came through the left side of the car, not the front. Another officer and Curtis Grimmitt also testified that they did not see Deron Grimmitt’s car swerve out of its lane or appear to aim at Cooperstein, whose car was parked on Second Avenue.

Wecht also noted that Cooperstein, at the time of the shooting, was taking several medications in a combination likely to have affected his judgment and ability to perform his job. Cooperstein told paramedics after the shooting that he had multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease of the central nervous system, and listed five drugs he was taking: BuSpar, prescribed for anxiety; Naprosyn, an anti-inflammatory; Baclofen, a muscle relaxant; Effexor, prescribed for depression; and Ritalin, commonly used to treat attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy.

Wecht said the drugs were legally prescribed for Cooperstein and Cooperstein “was not wrong to get sick.” But he questioned why Cooperstein remained on duty while taking those medications and suggested that police revamp and tighten procedures for requiring officers to report drugs they have been prescribed.

“I would not want a surgeon operating on me, an attorney defending me … a bus driver to operate a vehicle while on these drugs,” Wecht said. “I would not want a police officer driving around with a weapon on these drugs.”

Cooperstein, who is on paid leave, did not attend Wecht’s announcement. His attorney, David Trautman, said his client chose to remain at home while waiting to hear what Zappala would do but declined further comment.  As Wecht spoke, Grimmitt’s mother, Bettye, clasped hands with her daughter, Regina, while her other children clustered around her. “Thank you, Jesus,” they whispered after hearing Wecht’s first words. “This is just the first hurdle,” said Regina Grimmitt.

“We have a long road, and we’re going to continue our fight,” Curtis Grimmitt added.  As the crowd filed out of the coroner’s office, Deputy Police Chief Charles Moffatt approached Bettye Grimmitt and took her hand.

“I’m very sorry,” he said to her quietly. “There isn’t much else I can say. Moffatt, who this week is acting police chief while McNeilly is attending a conference, said police officials didn’t know what medications Cooperstein had been taking because he did not tell anyone, in violation of department policy.

Also yesterday, Acting Public Safety Director Kathy Kraus said police officials have completed an internal investigation into the conduct of Cooperstein and other officers during the incident that led to Grimmitt’s shooting and will make a decision this week about whether to file departmental charges against anyone.