A routine arrest at the Downtown Burlington Coat Factory erupted into a bloody confrontation between an off-duty city police officer working as a security guard and a suspected shoplifter yesterday afternoon that ended when the officer stabbed the suspect with a knife pulled from his utility belt.
“It became a tense situation until the officer became involved in a fight for his life,” said Sgt. James Vogel of Zone 2. “It’s one of the most serious situations our officers can face.”
Yesterday, Sgt. Vogel said the suspect, 59-year-old Anthony Smith, who has a lengthy criminal record, would likely face charges of aggravated assault in addition to robbery.
The officer was being treated for head injuries and a possible concussion at a hospital yesterday. Police would not say where he was being treated and would not release his name, saying only that he is in his mid-40s and a 16-year veteran with the Pittsburgh Police Bureau.
Police said the officer, who was working a private security detail in the store, caught Mr. Smith trying to shoplift three pairs of Timberland boots. The officer then escorted Mr. Smith down to a security office in the basement floor, where he looked up Mr. Smith’s criminal record on a computer and discovered there was a warrant out for his arrest.
He went to arrest Mr. Smith and had one of his wrists in cuffs when Mr. Smith turned around and began bludgeoning the officer with the cuffs, using them “like brass knuckles,” Sgt. Vogel said.
Mr. Smith backed him into a desk and hit him several times before grabbing for the officer’s gun, unsnapping the holster.
The officer then frantically pulled a knife from his belt and stabbed Mr. Smith in the stomach. Mr. Smith continued to fight the officer until he was pushed over and Tasered by another police officer who had arrived for backup.
Mr. Smith was transported to UPMC Mercy, where he underwent surgery yesterday for the stab wound. He was listed in stable condition.
Sgt. Vogel said the knife, which had about a two-inch fixed blade, belonged to the officer and was not standard issue. With the suspect reaching for his gun, the officer was running out of options and used the knife “as a weapon of last resort,” Sgt. Vogel said.
“Police are forced to make split-second decisions … it’s not subject to second-guessing by me or anyone else,” he said. “He made a decision that he felt was necessary to save his life.”
There was no indication the officer acted improperly, he said, and added that most arrest subjects do not fight back.
“This is one of a 3 percent chance,” he said. “Ninety-seven percent of the people we arrest will be compliant.”
City homicide detectives are investigating the case because of the severity of the incident and because a city police officer was involved, Sgt. Vogel said.
The officer, who was hit so hard that it left the handcuffs bloody, was due to be released from the hospital last night and may be put on administrative leave pending an investigation. Sgt. Vogel said the officer was “extremely agitated” but conscious and alert, though he was beginning to show signs of a concussion.
Court records indicate that Mr. Smith has pleaded guilty to theft charges a dozen times since 1988. Last year, he served several months in jail for retail theft from 2006. Two weeks ago, he was arrested and charged again with retail theft by Ross police.
“Shoplifting from people in an already downturned economy is just bad karma,” Sgt. Vogel said. “In this situation, it almost cost one of my officers his life.”
JOIN THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF PRIVATE OFFICERS
Get news alerts, officer down, weather emergency news in your mailbox! Sign up;firstname.lastname@example.org
Join us at http://www.myspace.com/privateofficernews
Come be part of our social network! http://www.privateofficer.com