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‘We wanted it to end’ says county police superintendent
Residents and some civil-rights groups have criticized checkpoints and searches that were conducted Sunday night in the wake of the shooting of a McKeesport police officer.
But Allegheny County police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said this week that officers wanted to get an armed and dangerous suspect off of the streets as quickly as possible before any additional violence took place.
“We wanted it to end right here,” McDonough said at a press conference Monday. “We want this to be the last harm inflicted by that individual ... that’s our primary concern.”
The shooting occurred after Koby Lee Francis, 22, was served with a protection-from-abuse order on Sunday afternoon. Less than an hour later, McKeesport police were called to Harrison Village after a caller reported Francis was trying to take custody of his infant son, in violation of the PFA.
When police located Francis a few minutes later in Crawford Village, he was sitting in a car outside of another residence that was covered by the same PFA. Police arrested him at the scene and confiscated a firearm from his car.
But police said that Francis had concealed another gun. When city police officer Jerry Athans, 32, opened the back door of the police car in which Francis had been transported, police said Francis opened fire.
Though struck three times, Athans returned fire. Francis, still handcuffed, fled on foot.
In the wake of the shooting, multiple agencies converged on Downtown and the Third Ward, including officers from surrounding boroughs and townships, Allegheny County police and sheriff’s deputies, state police and federal law-enforcement agencies.
Checkpoints went up on Walnut Street, the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge and other major thoroughfares, where motorists were stopped and questioned by police.
Some drivers reported being asked to get out of their cars and open their vehicles’ doors and trunks.
One local group, Take Action Mon Valley, said the activity in some neighborhoods amounted to “over-enforcement” and “intrusiveness.”
In a statement, the group, co-founded by Mae Herriott Hudson and former McKeesport city councilor Fawn Walker-Montgomery, said its goal is “to assure that Koby Francis is brought in safe and alive” but also “to ensure that his family, friends and Black residents of McKeesport are safe from illegal searches, harm and emotional trauma.”
TAMV said that as of Monday, at least eight families had complained to the group about having their houses searched on Sunday night.
Some residents posted videos on Twitter and Facebook saying they were frightened and alarmed when police officers arrived at their homes with guns drawn and demanded entry.
Take Action Mon Valley alleged that the searches amounted to a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects Americans against “unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires warrants to be issued only “upon probable cause.”
“Being a relative or friend of a suspect is not a reason” to search, TAMV said. The group encouraged residents to report their concerns by calling (412) 440-8268 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The American Civil Liberties Union also questioned the methods and tactics deployed on Sunday.
In a prepared statement, Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, called Athans’ shooting “tragic” and “terrible” and encouraged residents “not to interfere” with police operations.
However, Walczak said the search for the suspect involved in a crime “does not give police license to run roughshod over peoples’ constitutional rights.”
“Warrantless, non-consensual entries into peoples’ homes, suspicionless vehicle stops and searches of motorists’ cars and trunks, and checkpoint stops cannot be justified under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or ... the Pennsylvania Constitution,” he said.
At Monday’s press conference, McDonough said that when Francis was arrested in Crawford Village, he was already danger to the community.
“He went there angry, he went there armed,” McDonough said. “I think it’s in the community’s interest to bring him in.”
He declined to respond to specific complaints about Sunday night’s checkpoints and searches.
“I just find it hard to believe that we’re talking about these issues when Mr. Francis is still out there in the community, endangering innocent citizens,” McDonough said. “I think that’s the priority that we ought to be talking about today, is bringing him to justice before anybody else gets hurt.”
Any residents who felt they were unfairly treated should make their complaints to that specific agency, he said.
“If (an) individual has an issue with the tactics that were used, I would bring that to the attention of the department that was involved in that search,” McDonough said Monday.
“We preach courtesy — we preach courteous interactions with the public — but we also have to get results when there’s a danger to the community out there like this,” he said. “It’s a balance.”
Emails were sent Monday by Tube City Almanac to both McDonough and an Allegheny County spokesperson, asking them to address the concerns voiced by Take Action Mon Valley and others.
Their response was not available Wednesday evening.
Originally published December 23, 2020.