Saturday, March 23, 2019

Tony Norman: Antwon Rose -- Cause of Death: Lack of Training, Lack of Empathy
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Columnist
 MAR 22, 2019 12:00 AM

Yes, it is possible to feel sorry for former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld without losing sight of the greater pain he’s inflicted on a family — and a community — by shooting Antwon Rose II in the back last year, killing him.

Witnesses testified that in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Mr. Rosfeld was distraught, shaking, rambling. Some say he was angry, red-faced and aggressive.

On Wednesday, one of those witnesses, Patrick Shattuck, testified at Mr. Rosfeld’s trial that within minutes of the shooting, the officer came into the community center where several people had taken cover. Mr. Rosfeld asked a rhetorical question freighted with legal implications his jury will soon be asking itself:

“Why did he do that? Why did he do that? Why did he take that out of his pocket?” Mr. Shattuck said, repeating to the jury the officer’s question. But nothing was found in Antwon Rose’s pockets or in his hands. There was no weapon, despite Mr. Rosfeld’s attempt in the minutes after the shooting to rationalize a terrible event that never should’ve happened.

So now the jury will take Michael Rosfeld’s question and apply it to the actions of Michael Rosfeld himself: “Why did he do that? Why did he do that? Why did he take that gun out of its holster and shoot at the back of a fleeing suspect without evidence of danger or having any idea of who he was trying to kill?”

Mr. Shattuck denied that the shaken officer was directly engaging him or the other witnesses with his questions. “It was more like sobbing,” he said. “He truly looked like he was about to collapse.”

A fellow officer testified on day two of Mr. Rosfeld’s trial about how overcome with emotion his colleague was minutes after the shooting. A witness from the neighborhood testified he heard Mr. Rosfeld say after the shooting “I don’t know why I shot him; I don’t know why I fired.”

That testimony was challenged by defense attorney Patrick Thomassey, who pointed out that that piece of evidence was missing from the statement the witness gave police that day. It was typical of the legal maneuvers one sees at trials involving the shooting of an unarmed civilian by the police. Any testimony that could result in the conviction of a police officer is always treated as suspect.

The only thing that prosecutors and the defense seem to agree on is that Mr. Rosfeld was highly emotional at the time of the shooting. Witnesses report his hands were shaking before he pulled the trigger. A phone video of the incident shows that his being jittery didn’t slow his resolve or affect his accuracy.

I believe Mr. Rosfeld’s contention that he was working within the limits of his training when he shot and killed Antwon Rose. That does not excuse what he did, though. Mr. Rosfeld’s actions that June afternoon represent the sum total of his training by the East Pittsburgh police, which was negligible at best. But it was an even bigger failure of Mr. Rosfeld’s own humanity.

He is not a robot. He had the choice not to shoot a fleeing suspect in the back.

It’s clear that training in firearms and police-shooting protocol by many small-town municipalities consists mostly of target practice with very little time devoted to when it’s OK to shoot civilians. Many of these cops are on their own once their duty weapons are assigned. The willingness to shoot depends totally on an individual cop’s capacity for empathy.

Mr. Rosfeld clearly was very emotional after killing Antwon Rose, so it appears he’s capable of empathy. The problem is that his intense fear overcame his empathy, and he apparently had insufficient police training to counteract it.

The evening Mr. Rosfeld pulled the trigger, he was on automatic. He believed he had the right to shoot at the slightest adrenaline rush. He believed he had the right to shoot even in the absence of proof of threat.

Mr. Rosfeld shot Antwon in the back because he believed the decision to pull the trigger was totally at his discretion. He saw a fast-moving target and shot it in accordance with his training, which represents a failure of both training and empathetic imagination.

He did not see a young man — a human being — on the receiving end of his lethal firepower. He did not see a person capable of hopes and dreams until he was standing over his body, looking into Antwon’s anguished eyes. And yet, at that moment, Mr. Rosfeld felt sorry mostly for himself.

He knew he would have to pay for what he’d done, that he would suffer a guilty conscience or incarceration or both.

Many police officers, especially those trained at the same miserable levels as Michael Rosfeld, tell themselves after a bad shooting that it is better to be judged by 12 jurors than carried by six pallbearers. They’re less concerned with the administration of justice in the abstract than coming out of every encounter alive at all costs, even if it means inflicting deadly violence on civilians they’re sworn to protect.

Tony Norman is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1631).

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