2 law enforcement experts say police appear to be justified in shooting of disturbed woman

January 16, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Two law enforcement experts said yesterday that police officers appeared to be justified in the fatal shooting of a mentally ill woman who threatened them with a steak knife.

Based on preliminary information released by city police, those interviewed by The Sun said it appears the officers reasonably believed their lives were in danger and had no alternative but to shoot Betty Keat, 64, Friday in her North Baltimore home.

"I would be hard-pressed to second-guess those officers," said George Parry, a former assistant district attorney who headed the misconduct unit for the Philadelphia Police Department from 1978 to 1983.

"You have major problems on your hand when a woman comes after you with a knife," Mr. Parry said. "It compounds the problem that she is mentally imbalanced. She is capable of inflicting serious injury."

The officers involved in the shooting, Manuel Eldridge Jr., 26, and Scott Dickson, 24, will remain on routine administrative duties until the investigation is complete. Department officials said that could take a week.

Meanwhile, their actions are being scrutinized from many corners. James Keat, a retired Sun editor whose marriage to Mrs. Keat ended in 1983, said he didn't want to comment immediately on the police actions.

But several neighbors, none of whom witnessed the shooting, complained the day after the shooting that police should have been able to disarm Mrs. Keat without resorting to deadly force. They point to her age and that she was armed with a knife, not a gun, and that she was outnumbered 4-to-1 by armed officers.

"We expect more of our cops than we do other public servants," said Byron Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore law school who has defended officers in use of force cases.

"In this case, we bring our life biases: 'Gee, she's only a lady, she's old. Therefore, she wouldn't have the power to inflict deadly force,' " Mr. Warnken said. "There is room to argue it on the other side, but I think the officers were probably justified."

The officers had gone to Mrs. Keat's home in the 300 block of Taplow Road about 5:30 p.m. after neighbors said she threw a flammable liquid on their lawns. When they got no response after knocking on her door, officers left to obtain psychiatric commitment papers, which would have forced her to be hospitalized for 72 hours while doctors evaluated her mental health.

They returned about 6:45 p.m. and said they could smell gasoline or some type of flammable liquid coming from the house, making them think Mrs. Keat had hurt herself. Four officers climbed in through a living room window and searched both floors of the house, but did not find her.

As the officers stood in the dimly lighted living room, the woman walked down the stairs toward them with the knife, police said.

The officers ordered her to drop the knife, but when she did not, the officers sprayed her with pepper Mace. They ordered her to drop the knife again, and when she did not, they sprayed her a second time. She still did not drop it, and two of the officers fired one shot each. Officials could not say how far the officers were from the woman.

"If pepper Mace did not deter her from coming forward, it probably more than likely supports [the officer's] belief that this knife is coming at one of us," Mr. Warnken said.

Officer Gary McLhinney, the city police union president, said that the bulletproof vests worn by officers often do not stop knives.

The Police Department's use-of-force policy allows officers to use their firearms to protect their lives or the lives of others. When an officer discharges his weapon, he or she shoots to incapacitate. "We shoot until the threat is removed," Officer McLhinney said.

The two experts also said that it might have been too dangerous for an officer to try to knock the knife out of the woman's hands. Had the officer failed, he might have been cut or stabbed, making it impossible for the other officers to open fire.

Mr. Parry said that officers did not have an option of leaving once they were inside, especially because they had the woman's commitment papers. "You can't call anyone after you call the police. It's the end of the line."

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