Officers say deadly force rule is scant help at 'moment of truth'

April 20, 1993|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writer

The use of deadly force by Baltimore police is narrowly defined in a terse, single-sentence regulation that spells out when city officers can draw their guns and shoot.

Essentially, the directive limits the use of deadly force to situations in which the life of an officer or another person is in danger or when a forcible felony is under way.

But out on the street -- when officers confront suspects in circumstances beyond their control -- the rules are sometimes blurred by the anger, fear and pressure of a stressful situation.

These are the cases -- say officers, commanders and civil libertarians -- where officers have to make split-second judgments that, months later, may become the subject of courtroom scrutiny and internal investigations if the shots hit someone. They are also the tragic cases in which an officer's error can result in an unjustified death of another person.

Public concern over the use of deadly force by police was raised again after Saturday's fatal shooting of an unarmed 14-year-old West Baltimore youth who fled from an officer to avoid an arrest for being in a stolen car.

Before the day had ended, State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms called for a grand jury investigation.

It was the fifth fatal shooting by an officer this year, compared with eight in 1992.

Simmont Donta Thomas of the 1700 block of N. Warwick Ave. was shot once in the back and pronounced dead near the 900 block of Ellicott Driveway near Gwynns Falls Park.

Western District Officer Edward T. Gorwell II, 24, has been placed on administrative duty pending the grand jury investigation, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow, Mr. Simms said.

The Police Department is conducting a separate internal investigation.

"The shooting Saturday of the 14-year-old points to a couple of things," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for Maryland. "First, the number of shootings in Baltimore suggests tension on the streets is getting extremely bad and many citizens distrust the police. Secondly, police are in a dangerous spot where the bad guys often have more firepower than they do. What a hard job."

In reality, the deadly force regulation hardly outlines all the factors an officer must weigh in making almost instantaneous decisions on the street.

The words of the directive are legalese, officers say.

Nothing in the rule addresses the fear or anger they feel, the adrenalin pumping through their bodies during what one officer describes as the "moment of truth."

"Every cop will tell you the same thing -- they want to go home at the end of their shift," said an officer who has been involved in a fatal shooting. The veteran officer spoke on condition of anonymity.

In recent years, he said, "There is more of a heightened fear on the street. More suspects are armed, and often better than us. They can't teach you enough in the academy to prepare you for the real street world. They try to preach sensitivity but there is one dominating thought -- survival."

Jeffrey Senese, a criminal justice professor at the University of Baltimore, knows that the classroom can never replicate the real world. But he still attempts to stress negotiation rather than confrontation in his classes.

"I teach my students to try to do whatever you have to do to get out. . . . Try everything to avoid that confrontation," Mr. Senese said.

"The rule of thumb is, legally speaking, you meet force with equal force," he said. "If somebody punches you in the face, you can do the same thing. But if somebody punches you in the face, you can't pull out a gun and shoot him.

"The real problem is if you have a split-second to make that decision to protect you or someone else . . . well, I wouldn't wish that on anyone. The Supreme Court has eight months or three years to make a decision on a police officer's split-second decision."

He said most police departments, including Baltimore's, base deadly force policy on a Supreme Court decision rendered in the early 1980s.

The case -- Tennessee vs. Gardner -- "turned the corner on the amount of force police officers can use," Mr. Senese said.

Mr. Senese said the policy originated with a case based on the fatal shooting of a teen-ager in the back by a Memphis, Tenn., policeman during a chase. "The standard rule, based on that decision, is you can't shoot someone in that set of circumstances."

Still, officers and their commanders believe that street situations defy such rules because each scenario is different.

"Generally, everybody forgets police officers are human beings, they are not supposed to get excited," said a police commander. "People think that, in the middle of a fight or a chase, this calm is supposed to wash over an officer and a light bulb comes on announcing, 'Equal force, equal force.'

"It just doesn't happen that way," he said. "You can train all you want but people can't measure fear, what's inside your mind. The honest truth is we make mistakes too, but they get magnified."

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