A case for the grand jury

September 26, 1991

Although it appears that Baltimore County Police Department guidelines may have permitted the type of shooting that police say occurred Monday at Woodlawn High School, in which a 19-year-old man was killed, the incident raises lingering questions about the appropriate use of deadly force in making arrests.

The incident began in the school parking lot when officers attempted to apprehend three occupants of a vehicle on suspicion of car theft. Police chased the car around the school grounds, where the vehicle brushed two officers and rammed an unmarked police cruiser before heading toward two more officers approaching the scene on foot. One of the officers fired six shots at the oncoming vehicle, killing the driver.

Although department policy discourages the use of firearms against fleeing suspects, it does permit officers on foot to shoot "at a moving vehicle which is, at that moment, being used as a weapon against the officer." That condition apparently was met in this case. And yet the fact remains that a teen-ager was killed on school grounds for what very well may have been nothing more than an adolescent prank gone awry.

It is, of course, difficult to second-guess officers on the scene, who must make split-second decisions in highly stressful circumstances. The area had been plagued by a string of auto thefts, and police later discovered that a stereo speaker had been removed from a car parked on the lot. But society cannot condone shooting teen-agers suspected of stealing a radio.

An internal investigation is underway. Yet unlike in Baltimore city, every police-killing in the county is automatically referred to the state's attorney after the departmental inquiry is concluded. The state's attorney then may bring the case before a grand jury for review. That is the appropriate way to handle such cases in order to maintain public confidence in the police. Such cases are too serious to be dealt with as just an "internal matter."

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