Pennsylvania State Police shroud details about fatal shootings for years
When a Pennsylvania State Police trooper shoots a suspect, the agency releases few, if any, details about the circumstances of the shooting and whether the use of deadly force was justified.
That’s what the family of Anthony Gallo, 34, is learning a month after a trooper fatally shot him multiple times as he held a knife inside a neighbor’s trailer home in Washington County.
“We just want justification,” said Robert Herring, Gallo’s cousin. “There was no reason to use deadly force. There was no reason to use live rounds right out of the gate.”
The Tribune-Review filed a Right-to-Know request for details about all state trooper-involved shootings that occurred from January 2014 through July in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, Butler, Beaver, Cambria, Indiana, Somerset, Fayette, Greene, Armstrong, Lawrence and Mercer counties. Of the 10 shootings in that timeframe, the state police’s response noted the date, the troop where it occurred, and whether the trooper fired in “self defense” or “to protect others.”
State police officials denied requests for data about whether the shooting was fatal, the names of the troopers involved, the name of the person shot, the outcome of the investigation and any related dash cam video footage.
In some cases, including the fatal shooting of Steven Ward, 20, in December in Washington County, the Washington County District Attorney and Allegheny County Medical Examiner publicly released those details and they have been widely reported, but state police did not include them in response to the Trib’s open records request.
State police and members of Gallo’s family who were at the Mark Avenue mobile home park give differing accounts of the incident on the afternoon of Oct. 1 that began when Gallo’s mother called for an ambulance to get mental health treatment for her son because he had been harassing neighbors.
The day of the incident, state police Capt. Joseph Ruggery said the officers arrived at the trailer park in uniform and in marked vehicles, announced themselves, and ordered Gallo to drop the knife. He refused and broke into a trailer and police followed, afraid there might be others in the home.
Herring says police did not identify themselves. He was in the trailer with his cousin. He says he tried to tell the troopers that Gallo wouldn’t harm anyone.
Police say they again ordered Gallo to drop the knife. He didn’t. At least one trooper opened fire.
After firing, Herring said police ordered Gallo to drop the knife. Then, he says, they shot him again.
“They shot a bunch more rounds off after that,” Herring said.
Police did not indicate in the aftermath of the shooting how many times Gallo was shot.
If the officers were wearing body cameras, it would shed light on what happened, but Pennsylvania state troopers do not have them.
State police have vehicle dash cams, but they declined to say whether there’s footage of the incident from outside the trailer because it is still under investigation.
Even after the investigation closes, though, state police do not release dash cam footage.
In Pennsylvania, getting access to video footage and details of trooper-involved shootings is nearly impossible outside of a court proceeding, even for family members of the person who was shot. A state law that went into effect in September exempts police dash and body cam footage from public disclosure laws, making it even harder.
Across Pennsylvania, state police routinely deny requests seeking basic information and footage, as there’s nothing that requires them to release it, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania News Media Association.
“I see it on a daily basis,” Melewsky said. “We have abysmal public access to law enforcement records in this state.”
In Florida, where laws providing access to public records are strong, the type of information Pennsylvania State Police declined to share would be released, including the dash cam footage, after the investigation is closed, said Lt. Thomas Pikul, a Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokesman.
Direct family members of a person shot in Florida would have access to dash cam footage and documents before the investigation closes, Pikul said.
In Pennsylvania, state police spokesman Cpl. Adam Reed said he is unaware of that happening outside of court proceedings.
Herring, Gallo’s cousin, said police haven’t provided information to family members regarding the shooting.
“We get nowhere. They won’t answer any questions,” he said of investigators.
Pennsylvania isn’t the only state that withholds footage.
According to the Washington Post, of the 952 fatal police shootings nationwide last year, only about 6 percent were captured by body cameras. Of those, more than half declined to provide the footage to the Post.
Pennsylvania state trooper-involved shootings go through two investigations: A state police internal investigation to determine whether the trooper followed policy or whether discipline is needed, and another by the District Attorney’s Office to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
State police do not publicly disclose when an investigation is closed, and they don’t say if investigators have determined whether a shooting was justified.
“Since the (incident) investigation is administrative and not criminal, if it would be found that policy was not followed, it would result in internal discipline, which is considered a matter of personnel records and wouldn’t be public,” Reed said.
District attorneys in Pennsylvania often announce when an investigation is closed and whether a police-involved shooting was justified.
Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone said last month that the Gallo shooting remained under investigation.
“Once the investigation is completed, the file will be sent to my office for review,” he said.
A state police policy dictates a news release must go out when a trooper shoots a person, as well as other activities that would generate public attention, Reed said.
A state police website lists 329 news releases dating to February 2015, but none is about trooper-involved shootings. Reed said state police troops or stations issue statements about trooper-involved shootings individually. State police list 16 troops statewide.
“There is nowhere you would be able to find all of them in one place since they originate from different locations,” he said.
Theresa Clift and Megan Guza are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Clift at 412-380-5669, email@example.com or via Twitter @tclift. Reach Guza at 412-380-8519, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @meganguzaTrib.