When police shoot Deadly force: Questions about proper procedure continue to be raised.

February 20, 1996

TESTY ATTITUDES by several police union officials about recent police shootings are understandable. Officers typically feel underappreciated as they daily encounter danger while protecting the law-abiding from criminal predators.

But those who suggest the public need not ask pointed questions about these shootings are wrong. There can be no automatic assumption that every officer acts correctly in every situation. There can be no resistance to reviewing deadly force policies to see if rules should be changed.

The fatal shooting Thursday of an elderly man who reportedly threatened officers with a gun brought to four the number of incidents this year in which someone was shot and killed by a city police officer. There were 12 fatal shootings involving officers last year, 14 non-fatal shootings and 13 other confrontations in which shots were fired but no one was wounded. There is no set pattern as to when police shootings occur, so it's too early to say this year will be more deadly than others. Maybe it won't, if the right questions are asked and answered.

The deadly force training police receive must be considered. Perhaps police cadets are properly trained, but what is available seasoned officers? A 15-year veteran apparently fatally shot Preston E. Barnes on Feb. 7 after stopping the unarmed young man because his car tag wasn't visible. That incident involved a veteran, but the youth of the department is also important. It has become typical for a Baltimore officer to have only been on the job five years or less. Inexperience may have been a factor in the Jan. 12 fatal shooting of Betty Keat.

The Keat shooting also raises questions about police procedures when called in to handle a case involving a mentally ill person. She threatened officers with a knife and was shot in her home. Current policy calls for police, without medical personnel, to handle any involuntary commitment of a person believed to need mental health treatment.

A separate tragedy of the Keat shooting was its revelation of what now seems a glaring inadequacy in the mental health system. Current emphasis on deinstitutionalization requires a network that offers better outpatient assistance to persons with a history of mental illness who live alone.

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