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Emmitt Willis remembers the heat of the gun that had just fired a few inches from his back. He remembers waiting to see if he felt pain and fearing another shot might come.
The 23-year-old Black man filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday, alleging that a White police officer from Raccoon Township — about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh — pointed a gun at him from a moving unmarked police car before punching him in the face at least twice and later firing that gun into the ground a few inches from his back. Willis was released without being charged after being held in custody for several hours during the January 3 incident, according to the lawsuit.
State Police investigators and officers from a neighboring police department responded to the scene to investigate. Willis said he asked the Raccoon officer and the other investigators for his name and badge number but was never given the information. The lawsuit lists the officer as John Doe.
A message left for Raccoon Police was not returned Tuesday. The Township's solicitor confirmed in an interview with WTAE-TV that there is an ongoing State Police investigation and that an officer is on leave.
The lawsuit also names three Pennsylvania State Police investigators who responded. The agency's Communications Director Ryan Tarkowski said the investigation into the Raccoon officer and into a potential DUI are still ongoing.
"The Pennsylvania State Police is currently investigating both the suspected DUI and the municipal officer's use of force (the shot fired) described in the lawsuit," Tarkowski wrote in an emailed statement. "We cannot release information relative to these ongoing investigations. Upon completion, the findings of each investigation will be forwarded to the Beaver County District Attorney for a prosecutorial determination."
Willis said the incident happened while he was delivering his third grocery order of the night. A black SUV rushed up behind him, eventually moving into the oncoming traffic lane where Willis could see a man pointing a gun at him.
Willis said in an interview Tuesday that the car had no markings, never flashed emergency lights or sirens and the only uniform the officer was wearing was a knit hat with the word "Police" on it.
In the lawsuit, Willis alleges he was forced onto the shoulder and tried to take a turnoff to pull over, when he hit a parked truck. Willis said the moment the car stopped, he put his hands up and touched the roof of the car.
The officer came to his car door with his gun drawn, yelling "get out" before he struck Willis in the face with a closed fist, according to the lawsuit. He then pulled Willis out of the car, pushed him to the ground, hit him in the face and pressed his gun into Willis' back as he handcuffed him, Willis said.
Willis described the gun slipping from his back a few times, the last time discharging and hitting the ground a few inches from his back.
"I could feel the direct heat and the gas moving from the muzzle blast," Willis said. "Just feeling that heat and taking that breath's pause, (asking myself) is pain going to come after this? Did I actually get hit? Am I going to be OK? Just hearing the sound and calculating is he going to fire again? All of those questions were circling in my head."
The lawsuit alleges the officer used racial slurs when addressing Willis and told a bystander who had come to see what was happening that the police "do not kill innocent Black men." Willis alleges the officer asked the bystander to watch him because the officer hadn't placed his car in park and it had rolled onto the grass of a nearby property.
He said the officer picked up a shell casing from the ground before State Police and Center Township officers arrived to investigate. Willis said he asked why he was being detained and was told it was still being determined.
Willis was later given a field sobriety test and was told he failed because he was shaky and had an elevated heartrate. He was taken to the State Police barracks and then to the hospital where he submitted to a blood draw to prove he was sober.
He was released hours later without being charged. He said investigators told him they would be in touch about any investigation into the officer's actions. But Willis said Tuesday he was never contacted. Both he and his parents unsuccessfully requested the officer's name, he said.
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