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OFFICIALS TROUBLED BY SUSPECT'S PRIOR RECORD

Mario J. Pittman -- accused of starting a shootout with a police officer that led to the critical wounding of an innocent bystander early Thursday -- previously pointed a loaded handgun at another police officer.

On Feb. 12, 1998, according to police records, Pittman pointed the loaded .25-caliber handgun at an officer answering a "man with a gun" call on Northland Avenue. The incident ended with Pittman dropping his gun and attempting to flee after the officer pulled his own weapon.

That 1998 incident left Buffalo's top police officials fuming about the Thursday morning shootout that left Amber Keller, 20, gravely injured with a gunshot wound to the head.

"There's something wrong when he (Pittman) is given a second chance to kill a police officer and then more tragically endangers a totally innocent citizen," Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina said Friday.

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello noted that police have had to change their methods to deal with the guns and drugs on the streets, but the criminal justice system hasn't kept pace with that, he suggested.

"This system isn't changing," Masiello said. "More often than not, they're returning these dangerous criminals to the streets."

A closer look at Pittman's lengthy felony-dotted record revealed something else that troubled top police officials.

Pittman, now 31, was sentenced to six years in prison for the 1998 attempted assault on a police officer, police officials said.

But before that sentencing, Pittman remained free and was arrested three more times in the next four months, once for inciting a riot, police records show.

"Isn't that amazing that he wasn't held in some facility?" Deputy Police Commissioner Robert T. Chella asked. "Not only was it an attempt on a police officer's life, but it was his second gun charge in four years."

Pittman's record shows that he was arrested 11 times in the 1990s and charged with nine felonies, including attempted aggravated assault on a police officer, robbery and burglary charges and possession of both guns and drugs.

Masiello, addressing an awards ceremony Friday, called Pittman a "thug, quite frankly."

While police officials continued to monitor Keller's condition, they pursued their investigation of the shooting, which occurred at about 2 a.m. Thursday. Police believe one of about four shots fired by Officer Thomas P. English, as he returned the suspect's fire, struck Keller in the head as she looked out a window at her friend's house on Genesee Street.

Police have interviewed three witnesses to the shootout.

"Their versions of the events that night are consistent with the officer's explanation of the shooting," one police official said Friday.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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