A Pittsburgh policeman, who stopped a high-speed chase when he shot at a vehicle as it sped toward the place where he was standing, has been charged with aggravated assault and criminal homicide. Officer Jeffrey Cooperstein, 44, a six-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Police Department, responded to the call by officers who were in fierce pursuit of a car occupied by Deron and Curtis Grimmit. The brothers, both felons with long police records, had refused to stop when two other squad cars attempted to pull their vehicle to the side of the road.
The incident began at 3:30 A.M. on December 21, 1998, when Sergeant Andrew Lisecki observed a Chrysler New Yorker that fit the description of a vehicle that had been involved in a drive-by shooting the day before. As soon as the occupants of the car noticed the police cruiser, they immediately took off at a high speed. Officer Lisecki activated his overhead lights and turned on his siren. They stopped their car, and, as the officer approached, he saw Deron Grimmit reach for what appeared to be a weapon. The officer drew his weapon, and then the Grimmit brothers sped off again on Second Avenue outbound from Pittsburgh, this time at speeds of 50-70 miles per hour.
Lisecki followed, radioing his position with the warning that the driver might be armed. He also verified that the license plates were invalid. The Chrysler made a U-turn and proceeded at 70 miles per hour inbound on Second Avenue, weaving in and out of traffic. Another police cruiser, driven by Officer Richard Diamond, took up the pursuit, pulling behind the Chrysler and activating the squad’s emergency lights.
Officer Jeffrey Cooperstein, who heard of the high-speed pursuit on his police radio, positioned his cruiser in the left outbound lane facing incoming traffic. He got out of the police car, leaving the driver’s side door open, and stood behind the door with his service weapon drawn. The car came speeding down the street with two police cars in pursuit with their sirens and lights activated.
As the Chrysler approached and did not slow down, Officer Cooperstein, thinking that he was about to be run over, fired four rounds at the car. One of the rounds grazed Deron Grimmit in the left shoulder, struck him above the left ear and entered his skull. His car crashed into a wall just beyond the police cruiser. He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. Mr. Grimmit was on probation at the time of the shooting.
The President of the local Federation of Police defended the officer and said he was justified in using his service weapon as he thought his life was in danger.
However, the case has drawn prominent black leaders who claim that the death of Grimmit was racially motivated. The Rev. Jesse Jackson held a press conference in Washington, D.C., with Deron Grimmit’s mother, and stated that this case was an example of police abuse of minorities and “terrorism of the highest order.” Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) called for Congressional hearings on the issue with the full support of Ira Glasser of the ACLU.
Officer Cooperstein’s trial in the Criminal Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County is scheduled to be held by the end of the year. We will provide an update in the next newsletter.