Sunday, March 7, 2004

Officer, suspect trade gunshots

Bullet injures bystander in South Fairmount

By Jane Prendergast and Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A suspect lies in the street after his shoulder was grazed by a bullet in what authorities say was an exchange of gunshots with a police officer at the intersection of Harrison and Queen City avenues.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/CRAIG RUTTLE
SOUTH FAIRMOUNT - A bystander was shot in the chest Saturday after police said a handcuffed teenager in the back seat of a Cincinnati police car exchanged shots with a rookie police officer.

Investigators are working to determine whether the 17-year-old suspect or the officer shot the bystander, a woman believed to live in the neighborhood. Authorities also are investigating how the suspect, who was under arrest and handcuffed, had a small-caliber gun after being searched by several officers.

The bystander's injuries were not life-threatening, but officials at University Hospital declined to release her condition Saturday. Her name was not released.

A bullet grazed the teen's shoulder, and he was taken to University Hospital, where he was treated and released. The teen, whose name was not released, was expected to be taken to juvenile detention.

Saturday's shooting is the third time in a month Cincinnati police officers have been shot at or had loaded guns pointed at them during confrontations.

Officer Katrina Neal was not hurt. Neal graduated from the police academy last year and just recently was allowed to patrol alone after training on the streets with a more experienced officer. She is still on probation, said Police Chief Tom Streicher, who was at the scene.

"She's doing as well as can be expected," the chief said. "She's emotionally upset."

Shots ring out

The shooting erupted about 5:30 p.m. at the intersection of Harrison and Queen City avenues as Neal was taking the teenager to juvenile detention in Mount Auburn. He had been arrested about an hour earlier in a street robbery, police said.

In a press conference Saturday night, Lt. Anthony Carter said the suspect fired one shot while seated in the back of Neal's cruiser. Neal opened her door, rolled out and, using the car for protection, fired back.

"Subsequently, a volley of gunfire occurred," Carter said.

A police dispatcher announced to officers that one of their own needed help, then said shots had been fired. Sounding frantic, Neal said she wasn't hit. Numerous squads converged, and officers pulled the teen out of the car.

The bystander was in the parking lot of a BP gas station when she was hit. She had "absolutely nothing to do with this incident," Carter said.

Police believe the suspect was handcuffed behind his back. Streicher said it was unclear how the suspect was able to fire the gun, but he said handcuffed suspects are occasionally able to wiggle around enough to get weapons out of their clothes and fire them.

Suspects usually are searched by officers of the same sex. Officers are trained to handcuff suspects with their hands behind their backs, except in rare occasions. Several officers were involved in the arrest of this suspect, police said.

Police also are trained to search the back of cruisers after every suspect exits to make sure no weapons, evidence or contraband are left behind.

Scott Dean, a BP spokesman, said the company will hand over the store's security videotape if investigators want it.

"It appears to be a random act," he said, "not related to our operations there."

Two cashiers working at the time of the shooting said they didn't see anything but heard what they thought were two gunshots.

Sharon Auciello of Delhi Township was stopped at a traffic light on Harrison Avenue when she saw police wrestling with a man in the intersection.

"I didn't know what was going on," said Auciello, 50. "I'm just glad that no one was seriously injured.''

Cecil Thomas, director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, went to the scene to make sure the neighborhood around the shooting stayed calm.

"Based on the circumstances, there is no real reason to be concerned as to the issues," Thomas said late Saturday. "(The) preliminary investigation indicates that an individual had a weapon firing at the officer, and the officer obviously had to do whatever the officer had to do to protect herself.

"So, based on that preliminary report, I am not concerned that citizens will act negatively if it's an incident where an individual was actually trying to shoot the officer."

Police blocked traffic in all directions at the intersection for more than three hours. The McDonald's closed after customers were not able to drive into the lot.

Doug Decker, the gas station manager, lamented the breakout of violence. "It's a little disheartening, but that area is well-known," he said. "It's a rough area as far as crime goes."

Commanders respond

The shooting drew much of the department's top command, including Streicher, Assistant Chief Richard Janke, acting investigations commander Capt. Vince Demasi and homicide Lt. Kim Frey. Officials from the department's Internal Investigations Section and the Citizen Complaint Authority also responded. Both agencies will investigate after homicide detectives handle the initial case.

The officer will be placed on paid administrative leave for seven days, which is routine procedure.

Keith Fangman, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the union was "very thankful that Officer Neal was not killed. And our thoughts and concern are with the citizen who was injured."

But he said what "sickens" him is that the recent incidents in which officers have been shot at have prompted no outcry from City Council members.

Reporter Matt Leingang contributed. E-mail

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