Drug War

When a 'Controlled Buy' Turns Into a Daytime Parking Lot Shootout

A drug bust gone wrong in a Pittsburgh suburb leaves the suspect dead, an agent injured, and kids and shoppers terrified.

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On a typical sunny Tuesday afternoon, Northland Plaza on busy McKnight Road in the affluent Pittsburgh-area suburb of Ross Township is buzzing with people. Big Lots is full of daytime shoppers, parents are taking their young children to summer dance classes at Cynthia's School of Dance, and toddlers are taking advantage of a rare sunny day in Western Pennsylvania by playing on the playground outside of their day care. 

But on July 23, the parking lot was the scene of a botched a drug bust resulting in a shootout between the suspect and undercover agents. The suspect was killed and an undercover agent was shot. 

A witness described the scene as "chaos" with shoppers inside Big Lots reportedly barricading the door with a refrigerator in an effort to protect themselves from gunfire. A 34-year-old mother said her children were rushed inside the daycare building when shots rang out. Four-year-olds were ushered away from windows and huddled into corners as gunfire erupted outside. In the aftermath, frantic parents drove past a gray sedan and a gold SUV surrounded by crime scene tape, both vehicles with bullet holes through the windows.

Why did Pennsylvania's top law enforcement agency choose this spot for an armed confrontation with a low-level drug dealer?

"Look, this work is dangerous work and we don't get to dictate the terms of every location where we meet," Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D–Pa.) said dismissively in response to questions during a press conference

But that's simply not true. I know, because I was a major crimes detective for nearly a decade.

Parking lots are routinely chosen by police to conduct drug busts because it is easy to hide surveillance vehicles in a crowded parking lot. In training classes for undercover operations, instructors often recommend conducting drug buys in parking lots for this very reason. 

At the Ross shopping center, officers were conducting an "undercover buy/bust operation" when the suspect opened fire on one of the undercover agents, according to Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough. Buy/bust operations are preferred by many police agencies because they are efficient. They typically result in a quick arrest and ensure a successful prosecution because of the large amount of evidence uncovered in a short period of time. In a buy/bust, you have the testimony of surveillance officers, the testimony of the undercover officers making the buy as well as evidence such as marked bills. Buy/busts save money because they do not involve lengthy investigations. 

But buy/bust operations are also notoriously dangerous due to the "shock and awe" aspect of the arrest; they usually involve several screaming cops with guns drawn ordering the arrestee to the ground. This danger is magnified when the undercover officers attempt to make the arrest themselves, because the subject likely doesn't even realize he or she is dealing with police, as robbery is common in drug transactions.

In this case, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office chose to conduct the most dangerous type of drug bust, using undercover agents to make the arrest—despite having other options.

Buy/bust operations are typically used when the identity of the subject is unknown. But the now-deceased suspect, Omari Thompson, was no stranger to police. Rather, he had an extensive criminal history and was considered to be armed and dangerous. In fact, at the time of this incident, Thompson was on probation for drug and weapons charges, which means he is subject to warrantless searches of his residence. In other words, police had numerous alternatives to make this arrest without a violent confrontation. They did not choose those options.

State agents knew the identity of the suspect, knew he was armed and dangerous, knew he has responded violently to an armed confrontation in the past, knew there was another mechanism to investigate his illegal activity, and they still chose to conduct this operation in mid-afternoon surrounded by innocent men, women, and children.

This isn't an isolated incident. Another botched drug bust resulting in a shootout at a busy shopping plaza occurred in May at the hands of the Pennsylvania State Police. Undercover cops in Detroit unknowingly attempted to arrest each other in November 2017, resulting in a brawl in the streets. In 2015, an Albuquerque Police Lieutenant shot his own undercover narcotics detective eight times during a drug buy because he mistook him as the suspect. 

Ironically, these operations are known as "controlled buys." The term gives the false impression that the interaction will be predictable and under the control of the narcotics officers. Officers may even choose them because they believe they will be safer for their colleagues. But as the death of Thompson, the shooting of an undercover officer, and the panic of shoppers and toddlers demonstrate, there was nothing controlled about it.