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Public Outcry Prompts Penn Hills To Fire Police Officer Who Fatally Shot Wilkinsburg Man In 2019

Take Action Mon Valley co-founder and CEO Fawn Walker-Montgomery led calls to fire newly hired officer Robert Gowans from Penn Hills police force. Gowans fatally shot Romir Talley in Wilkinsburg in 2019.
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Take Action Mon Valley co-founder and CEO Fawn Walker-Montgomery led calls to fire newly-hired officer Robert Gowans from the Penn Hills police force. Gowans fatally shot Romir Talley in Wilkinsburg in 2019.

After drawing intense scrutiny, Penn Hills officials fired a police officer Monday who fatally shot a Wilkinsburg man a year and a half ago.

Municipal leaders announced their decision to fire Robert Gowans, who shot and killed 24-year-old Romir Talley while serving as an officer in Wilkinsburg, moments before activists were scheduled to protest Gowans' hiring outside the Penn Hills administrative offices Monday evening.

Although Gowans had been employed by Penn Hills since April, the municipality’s deputy mayor, Cathy Sapp, said that she and municipal councilors did not learn he’d been hired until Friday.

“The way we found out was by the way of our concerned residents,” Sapp said. “And when they reached out to council, I immediately called an emergency meeting.”

Penn Hills municipal manager Scott Andrejchak had chosen to hire Gowans even though Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala has yet to decide whether to charge the officer for Talley’s death, according to Sapp. At the emergency meeting, Sapp said, she and other Penn Hills officials insisted that Gowans be fired.

Still, Sapp said there will be no investigation into why Gowans had been hired in the first place.

“This was a learning lesson for all of us,” Sapp said of the controversy over Gowans employment.

But, activist Fawn Walker-Montgomery said, “There needs to be more accountability.” Walker-Montgomery leads the group Take Action Mon Valley, which organized the effort to remove Gowans from the Penn Hills police force.

Referring to Penn Hills officials, Walker-Montgomery said, “The gall of these people — to hire [Gowans] knowing that he has an open investigation for shooting and killing a Black man … If we didn’t say anything, [Gowans] would still be here. He’d still have his job.”

“I don’t think people understand how violent that is to us as Black people, that we have to fight for the small things: We’ve got to fight for elected officials to do their job,” Walker-Montgomery said.

Investigators said in 2019 that Gowans shot Talley as he fled from officers and fired a gun at them. Gowans was put on administrative leave immediately after the shooting, but eventually returned to his job with the Wilkinsburg Police Department.

Talley’s family sued the officer in federal court last fall. The civil suit accuses Gowans of mistaking Talley for another suspect and using excessive force against him.

That lawsuit is still pending, and local prosecutors have yet to determine whether the shooting was legally justified, according to a spokesperson for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.

Activists said they had hoped that officers like Gowans would have a harder time finding new policing jobs after Pennsylvania lawmakers approved legislation last summer to give law-enforcement agencies more access to the disciplinary records of prospective hires.

The measure was inspired largely by the 2018 police killing of Rankin teen Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh. The officer who fatally shot Rose, Michael Rosfeld, had been hired by the now-defunct East Pittsburgh Police Department even though he had allegedly engaged in misconduct in a previous position with the University of Pittsburgh Police Department.

Without activist groups like hers, Walker-Montgomery said, there is no guarantee that policies meant to bring more accountability to police hiring will be effective.