Philly police shootings to be investigated
By MaryClaire Dale
PHILADELPHIA — A city police officer was cleared of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man fleeing a New Year's party as police and multiple suspects exchanged gunfire, the district attorney said Wednesday.
Officer Stephen Szczepkowski, one of numerous officers at the scene in the early hours of 2007, was justified in shooting the man because he refused to stop and reached for his waistband before the officer fired, District Attorney Lynne Abraham said.
She said innocent lives were in jeopardy, but Bryan Jones, 20, was not an innocent bystander. He was known to carry a gun and had gunpowder in his waistband.
"I am sorry that he had to lose his life. All he had to do was halt, and put up his hands," Abraham said.
The party Jones attended was hosted by young men who had terrorized the neighborhood, according to an anonymous letter sent to an advocacy group before the incident. It described a neighborhood under siege and voiced particular concern about celebratory gunfire occurring on New Year's Eve.
When police arrived at the pair of West Philadelphia row houses, they exchanged gunfire with men at the scene, some firing from a roof. Afterward, police recovered nine guns - six on the roof - and 155 shell casings. All the guns were obtained illegally, and one was later linked to Jones.
At the crime scene, police marked the ground with plastic numbers for each shell casing found, in keeping with their practice. Abraham released two photos showing a sea of yellow plastic triangles covering a double driveway.
"There were so many spent cartridges, the police ran out of numbers," Abraham said.
Some men detained at the scene were charged with shooting at police, but the charges were dropped due to the difficulty of determining who fired upon whom. Prosecutors say seven men arrested there have since been charged with other serious crimes, including murder.
Jones' relatives, who have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city, say he went to the house to retrieve a 14-year-old nephew. Their lawyer said that any rational person would have tried to flee the violence.
"He was shot in the head a half a block away, with no gun on his body. He was no threat to anybody," lawyer Bruce Ginsburg said Wednesday.
Philadelphia police have come under criticism for the fatal shootings of 42 civilians in 2006 and 2007. Abraham, meanwhile, has taken heat for the length of time her office has taken to determine if the shootings were justified.
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At the news conference, she said she understands concerns that such lengthy investigations undermine public confidence in the police department. However, she said, "I'd rather be right than be quick."