Here, says Baltimore police Officer Charles M. Smothers II, is what the videotape of the death of James Quarles does not show you: That after about 10 minutes of refusing to drop an 8-inch knife outside Lexington Market last Saturday, Quarles suddenly gripped the weapon so tightly that the veins in his arms stood out. He gritted his teeth. He moved his left foot forward, and Smothers, fearing for his safety, fired one deadly shot to Quarles' right shoulder.
That a crowd of onlookers and a line of parked squad cars made it impossible for the officers to back away. That pepper spray, in the experience of Smothers' four years on the force, makes suspects more belligerent. That Quarles, 22, might have come slashing at him or at the crowd under a haze of gas. That police officers shooting at armed suspects are not taught to aim at the hands or the feet, but to stop an oncoming threat.
In an hourlong interview yesterday at the downtown office of his lawyer, Henry L. Belsky, Smothers, his wife and mother at his side, gave his account of a shooting that has raised questions in the police department and outrage in the community.
A week and a number of viewings of the videotape later, Smothers, 29, is still convinced he did what he had to do.
"I know it had to be done. I feel sorry for his family. I have lost loved ones too, and I know how it feels," the officer said yesterday. "I never meant for what happened to happen."
Smothers' first public account of the shooting yesterday came after a week of protests, questions from police department officials and shocked members of the public who watched the shooting on WBAL-TV, which purchased the videotape from the bystander who filmed it. The Baltimore state's attorney's office has been reviewing the tape and witness statements -- including one from Smothers -- to determine whether to present the case to a grand jury for indictment.
Shortly after the officer spoke yesterday, several dozen friends and relatives attended a viewing of Quarles' body in a plain gray coffin at an East Baltimore funeral home. Absent were any representatives of city officialdom, a fact that upset the family, whose members continue to puzzle over why Quarles did not drop the knife. Quarles' funeral is scheduled for today.
On the videotape, Quarles is seen from the back and partially obscured by a stone trash receptacle.
He does not appear to be moving forward just before he is shot.
There have been questions about why the officers did not use pepper spray to disable Quarles, why they did not render medical aid afterward and why Smothers was on patrol in the first place. He had received probation before judgment for a battery charge in November 1995 -- an incident in which he fired his gun off duty -- yet was returned to active duty nine months later while awaiting an administrative hearing that could have resulted in his dismissal.
Police sources say they may require that the police commissioner approve all such requests in the future.
Smothers, who is on administrative duties while Quarles' death is investigated, said he was fit to be an officer when he faced Quarles outside Lexington Market a week ago -- and that he is fit now. Saying, "I love what I do," the officer said he would seek to keep his job and return to patrol duty. "I want to go back out on the street. I know I'm a good officer."
According to Smothers, the call that began the 4: 30 p.m. confrontation came while he was taking his lunch break inside the market:
The dispatcher said there was a man swinging a knife in the 300 block of W. Lexington St. Along with two other officers, Smothers approached Quarles, who had his back to them. Another officer tapped Quarles on the shoulders, and Quarles turned around quickly. "That's when we saw the knife," Smothers said.
The officers backed up, put their hands on their guns and ordered Quarles to drop the knife.
"He just looked at us and said no," Smothers said. "His eyes were real big and bloodshot red."
The officers pulled their guns and repeated the command, backing up as far as they could. But that was only four or five feet, Smothers said, because the crowd would not move.
Quarles continued to refuse to drop the knife. "He said, 'No, this is my father's knife,' " said Smothers. According to his family, Quarles, a mild-mannered maintenance worker, had been despondent over his father's death in May and his mother's in December. (Tyrone Quarles, James Quarles' stepbrother, said yesterday he did not know if the knife belonged to James' father).
Smothers had seen the bystander with the video camera. He knew he was being filmed. "I'm thinking, I've got to do everything by the General Orders," he said.
A man in the crowd yelled out that he was Quarles' best friend. Smothers asked him to get Quarles to put the knife down.