Baltimore politicians, reporters gain firsthand knowledge of police work Course teaches civilians about deadly force

May 22, 1993|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writer

Baltimore Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran didn't see the gunman sneak up behind him.

Mr. Curran and a television reporter, role-playing as police officers, were at the back door of a low-rise apartment building. A print journalist, acting as the primary officer, was entering the front door of the building where heroin transactions were being made.

The participants in a unique crash course offered by the Baltimore Police Department on deadly force and weapons wouldn't learn until later that the simulation was modeled after a real-life incident in which Officer Gerald Martin was killed and another officer seriously wounded in an Oct. 10, 1989, ambush in a building in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave.

While Mr. Curran and the reporter staked out the back door, their team leader walked slowly into a darkened hallway.

The door slammed behind him and while he attempted to adjust his eyes to the darkness, an armed dealer played by Sgt. William Stone, a 25-year veteran, stepped out of the shadows and eliminated the "officer" with one shot to the head.

Suddenly alert

Sergeant Stone then slid outside the door and ran to where a suddenly alert councilman and reporter waited, guns drawn.

Two shots were fired at Mr. Curran from only a couple of feet away.

The councilman's partner also got caught up in the swirling confusion and was critically wounded, but not until he, too, had fired a couple of rounds in the direction of the surprised councilman.

Councilwoman Vera Hall also wound up in the day's body count.

The simulated incident was part of a program on deadly force for civilians conducted by the Police Department's Firearms Training Unit.

The program is believed to be unique in the nation, said Lt. Joe Key, the unit's commander.

The program on the controversial issue of deadly force -- when a police officer can fatally shoot someone -- is 2 years old.

While it doesn't approach the depth of the two weeks of training that police cadets receive, it is enough to demonstrate that the realities of street combat involving police can't be found in a book of rules and regulations.

The instructors have seen more than their share of "casualties" among the ranks of the city's Circuit Court bench and prosecutor's office, state mental health professionals, forensic scientists and, this week, about a dozen members of the City Council and the news media who were armed with .38-caliber revolvers that shot blanks.

"I can't wait until you get out there and see firsthand what it's like and how you react," Maryland State Police Cpl. Darryl Morgan told the visitors at the Maryland National Guard Reservation near Glen Arm in Baltimore County, where the simulated incidents were staged. He's an instructor at the state police training academy in Pikesville.

Unjustified shootings

During the simulations, instructors have seen dozens of unjustified shootings, including one by a television reporter who this week shot and "killed" an unarmed man who had committed no crime.

The issue of deadly force is on the minds of many Baltimoreans.

So far this year, city police have shot and killed six suspects.

Three other officers have shot and wounded suspected criminals, according to the department.

On April 17, a 14-year-old Baltimore youth was shot in the back by an officer as he and other teen-agers ran from a stolen car in which he was a passenger.

Western District Officer Edward T. Gorwell II was indicted April 28 by a city grand jury on a charge of manslaughter and was suspended without pay from the department.

Lieutenant Key explained the reason for the program on deadly force.

"We are trying to reach out to the community to make them part of our deadly force decision-making process," he said.

"When visitors finish their day here, they are stunned by the amount of information an officer has to consider in applying deadly force. And the officer's decision is made, in most cases, in less than two seconds," Lieutenant Key said.

'Better understanding'

The department's 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.

Lieutenant Key said the visitors discover during the simulations that the rush of adrenalin, confusion and fear cloud their judgment and perception.

Often, he said, those factors make it virtually impossible to make a calm, reasoned decision.

"I have a better understanding of things," Mr. Curran, a 3rd District Democrat, said at the end of a long, trying day.

"To my constituents, crime -- not the economy or foreign affairs -- is their primary concern in life," Ms. Hall said. "I came here to learn how police officers are training, what they feel, how they are trained to stay alive."

Ms. Hall, a 5th District Democrat, said she had expanded her understanding of the issue of deadly force.

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