East Pittsburgh Mayor Louis J. Payne expressed regret for the shooting death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II tonight in a contentious borough council meeting, the first held here since Rose’s death one month ago at the hands of a rookie borough police officer.
“Speaking not only for myself but for all elected officials here, the police department and borough staff, we’re all greatly saddened for the tragic event that cost young Antwon his life,” Payne told a standing-room only crowd.
“We are engaged in a re-evaluation of the operations of the borough’s police department in the spirit of correcting any shortcomings we may have. This will take some time, but our commitment is to get it done as soon as possible.”
He added, “We as a community have faced many challenges but none as extreme as what we’re facing right now, naturally.”
Council members have been instructed not to discuss the shooting further by the borough’s solicitor who cites the potential for civil litigation against the borough and an ongoing criminal investigation against Officer Michael Rosfeld.
Rosfeld killed Rose on June 19 as the teen fled a felony traffic stop in East Pittsburgh. Rose was unarmed. Rosfeld, who was sworn in just 90 minutes before the shooting, was seen and heard on bystander cellphone video firing three shots at Rose from behind and has since been charged with criminal homicide. Rosfeld remains an employee of the borough, a detail seized upon by residents and non-residents in the public comment portion of tonight’s meeting.
“If I shot someone, I wouldn’t be suspended with pay, I’d be in county jail,” said a local property owner who identified herself only as Jasmine. (Rosfeld has been placed on administrative leave. He remains free on bail.)
The public comment period followed the mayor’s remarks, which were met by some with skepticism and demands for a clearer timeframe.
“I have to worry about my kids coming out of the house because they’re black,” said Ashley Cannon, a borough resident. “Even when I was a teenager, there were issues with some of the full-time police here. Thirty-three years I’ve been here and nothing has changed. It’s gotten worse.”
Payne promised an update on the plan by the next council meeting but walked that back some after the meeting, telling a group of press that he hopes to have an update to provide by then but may not with third parties involved in the re-evaluation process. Council meets next on Aug. 21.
Dissatisfied with Payne’s response and the borough’s response to Rose’s death, public commenters vowed to oust elected officials who they noted are majority white in a majority black borough. The meeting and Rose’s death laid this racial tension bare.
“Look at this panel and then you look at this audience. Is this panel showing you what this audience is?” Jasmine said.
“Are you going to vote?” she added, turning to the crowd. They indicated they would.
“We’re gonna be strategic with our votes,” Erica Yesko shouted. “Vote everybody here out.”
Tonight’s East Pittsburgh Borough Council meeting was broken up at times with protest chants invoking Rose’s death. The public comments period of the meeting lasted over an hour. After the meeting adjourned, attendees gathered for an impromptu rally outside.
In speaking to the press afterward, Payne described the experience as “disheartening.”
He also said he heard residents’ calls for his removal, adding, “If the people of East Pittsburgh want me out, I’ll resign, but not right now because there’s work to be done, and I’m not going to turn my back on the people that need me.”
Payne also took issue with residential depictions of life in East Pittsburgh as tightly reined by officials and police and lacking in after-school programs, resources and recreational opportunities for children.
But residents reserved their harshest criticism for the borough’s handling of the Rose shooting and Rosfeld’s hiring. This dovetailed with calls for the police chief, Mayor Payne’s daughter, to be fired. Residents also criticized a lack of police department policies and procedures that was revealed on the heels of Rose’s death by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
Similar issues were discussed in a state legislative hearing hosted by Pennsylvania state Democrats in nearby Wilkinsburg earlier in the day.
In speaking with the press, Payne said there were policies in place for police officers but that “they might not have been updated the way they should be.”
Asked by The Incline if he supported his daughter staying on as chief, Payne said, “I’m not sure any of us should stay in these roles any longer.”