A rookie Philadelphia police officer who chased a suspect for several blocks after being shot in the face during a traffic stop underwent several hours of reconstructive surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania yesterday, police said.
Officer Richard Decoatsworth, 21, was seriously wounded by a close-range shotgun blast after he approached a motorist who was driving a battered blue Buick suspiciously at 9:05 a.m. in West Philadelphia, Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson said.
The shooting happened on a particularly violent day in West Philadelphia. Less than two miles away and a few hours later, a toddler was struck by stray bullets at a playground near 60th Street and Lancaster Avenue in Overbrook.
After he was shot on North Farson Street near Market Street, Decoatsworth, bleeding heavily from his wounds, pursued the culprit on foot while returning fire. Several blocks later, he collapsed on the 100 block of Paxon Street and radioed for assistance, Johnson said.
Squadrons of police and SWAT teams quickly responded, flooding the neighborhood - some of the officers searched on rooftops. They arrested Antonio Coulter, 20, whom neighbors had identified.
Coulter was found in a brushy alley between Paxon and 52d. Police identified him as the shooter and recovered a sawed-off shotgun hidden in the weeds about 25 feet away.
Coulter, who lives on the block where the shooting happened, was to be charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and other offenses.
Witnesses said three young men wearing high school uniforms were also in the Buick when it was stopped and that they fled after the officer was shot.
One was arrested in the neighborhood. The two others turned themselves in to police. Authorities said the teenagers would not be charged if the investigation showed they were simply passengers in Coulter's car.
Johnson said that Decoatsworth, who graduated from the Police Academy in March and who was assigned to the 16th Police District, was shot at close range with birdshot - smaller, less-deadly pellets than those contained in buckshot - and was fortunate to survive the blast.
Decoatsworth was shot on the left side of the face and suffered severe injuries to his jawbone and tongue. The injuries were not life-threatening, and his vision was not believed to have been impaired.
He was listed in critical but stable condition last night after surgery.
Authorities said Decoatsworth went after the Buick when he saw the driver backing up on Farson Street. As he approached the vehicle, the three teenagers, who police said attended University City High School, got out and began walking away.
Decoatsworth ordered them back to the car.
That's when the driver "reached into the automobile . . . got on the hood of the car, and shot the officer one time in the face with a sawed-off shotgun," Johnson said.
Decoatsworth returned fire as he chased the gunman, getting off seven shots.
Jeffery Dansette, 24, of Port Richmond, said he was just arriving in the area to work on a sewer project when he saw the three young men carrying school bags get out of the car and start walking down the street.
The driver, who was wearing a black, hooded sweatshirt, got out of the car and fired at the officer, he said. The young men then ran south toward Market Street while the officer chased the shooter north, out of Dansette's view.
"After that I heard four more shots," Dansette said. "I'm not sure who fired them."
An officer responding to Decoatsworth's radio call rushed him to the hospital in his patrol car.
"The officer, even after being shot, chased this male for approximately three blocks," Johnson said, calling Decoatsworth "an active officer," which means he was known for spotting suspicious activity and making arrests.
One officer who worked with Decoatsworth described the rookie as a "ball of fire" in a posting in an online police forum.
"He wanted to be in the mix," the officer wrote. "It was hard for him to stay in the car."
Until recently, Decoatsworth lived in Northern Liberties with his mother, Evelyn, a technical support specialist in the Temple University payroll office. His father, Mark J. Decoatsworth, lives in Florida but flew to Philadelphia yesterday to join the family in a vigil at the hospital.
A special room was set up for them.
Mayor Street, top commanders, and dozens of other officers rushed to the hospital after learning of the shooting.
"There was some consolation for her to see her son," Sgt. Joe Cella, a chaplain with the Fraternal Order of Police, said of Decoatsworth's mother. He said doctors were optimistic about his recovery.
Johnson commended residents for cooperating with police and helping to identify the suspect. Their actions yesterday stood in stark contrast to the "no snitching" mentality that has frequently thwarted investigators.
Speaking to reporters outside the hospital, Street talked about the easy availability of guns.
"This is a classic example of the problem associated with the proliferation of weapons on our streets," he said.
"It is sad that the level of civility in this community and other communities around the county has been reduced to this point," Street said.
Homicide Inspector Joseph Mooney called Decoatsworth heroic for pursuing the shooter under remarkable conditions.
"Because of that, that's what led to the quick apprehension of this person," Mooney said.
Coulter, a former reform-school football quarterback, has had other brushes with the law.
He was arrested at 16 for possession with intent to deliver drugs and committed to the Glen Mills School, a Delaware County juvenile detention facility, according to a law enforcement official. During the 2004-05 school year at Glen Mills, Coulter was quarterback of the school football team, the Battling Bulls. His photograph appeared in a 2004 Inquirer story about suburban high school football.
As an adult, Coulter was charged with simple assault and recklessly endangering another person in November. The charges were withdrawn in April.
Police said yesterday that Coulter resisted arrest and that they used pepper spray to force him to surrender. He was treated briefly at Mercy Hospital of Philadelphia before being taken to Police Headquarters.
Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or email@example.com.
Inquirer staff writers Larry Eichel, Joseph A. Gambardello and Michael Matza contributed to this article.