Second-guessing deadly force

April 22, 1993

The fatal shooting by a police officer of 14-year-old Simmont Donta Thomas is a tragedy.

It is a tragedy for his family.

It is a tragedy for Officer Edward T. Gorwell II, 24, a two-year member of the Baltimore police force, who fired the shot into the teen-ager's back as the youth fled from a stolen car early last Saturday in Gwynns Falls Park.

And it is tragic for a city that would just like to close its eyes and then open them to find the ills of homicide and drugs and wasted youth gone. Lamentably, no one has come up with any more tangible antidote that can work fast enough.

But not all tragedies are born alike. There is a difference -- or should be -- between those that are the result of evil intent and those that are due to human fallibility.

Two events that have transfixed the country in the past week -- the Rodney King beating trial and the Waco siege -- are prime examples of that.

While none of us was privy to all that the jury absorbed in the King case, everyone who saw the videotape of his beating had to conclude there was something dreadfully wrong there; a man lying on the ground being clubbed repeatedly by a circle of police. Call it what you will, it was no accident.

The Waco incident, on the other hand, was a tragedy of error. The government did not want children, or adults for that matter, in the Branch Davidian compound to die. One can second-guess the response of federal agents ad infinitum but cannot re-create the tension under which a decision had to be made.

Similarly, the fatal shooting of Simmont Donta Thomas is a tragedy, but of human error, not human evil. If Officer Gorwell was wrong to apply deadly force, his actions must be seen against the backdrop of a city in which policemen last fall were maimed and killed. The Thomas youth was 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, and at 1 o'clock in the morning might have looked 24 as easily as 14. Also, juveniles must know that fleeing police at a crime scene is no game, because police do make mistakes.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms were quick to appear on TV to lament the action and to try to defuse a potentially explosive situation. While that was necessary, they must not poison the atmosphere for the officer to get a fair trial, if he is indicted, or for any of his brethren in blue to second-guess putting their lives on the line to protect the city.

A boy is dead from a bullet in his back. The actions of an officer with sparse experience will be laid bare. But it must not be forgotten that the events surrounding a tragedy often look far different when they happen than from the safe distance of hindsight.

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