Deadly force is still a concern Smothers case: No crime was committed, but police policy needs reassessment.

September 10, 1997

STATE'S ATTORNEY Patricia C. Jessamy's ruling that no crime was committed by a policeman who fatally shot a knife-wielding man is understandable, though not universally applauded. Police policy permits use of deadly force to save a life, including the officer's. But her ruling leaves unanswered whether Baltimore police too frequently pull the trigger when alternatives exist.

Twenty-six people have been shot and killed by city police in less than three years. The Aug. 9 shooting of James Quarles on a crowded Baltimore street was videotaped and broadcast repeatedly on local television. Ms. Jessamy said witnesses corroborated Officer Charles Smothers' assertion that he shot Mr. Quarles after the man made a threatening move.

But what of the other fatal shootings by city police? Were they all necessary? Baltimore officers shot 32 people in 1995, 12 fatally; 26 in 1996, nine fatally; and 13 so far this year, five fatally. The numbers may be going down, but still appear to be high. There is a dearth, however, of comparative data on police use of deadly force.

One of the few sources is the FBI, which catalogs ''justifiable homicides'' committed by law enforcement officers. There were 383 such slayings in 1995, but that's among all the cities and towns that reported to the federal agency.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke attributes the frequency of police shootings in Baltimore to the more aggressive approach the city's department now takes to reducing drug-related crimes that involve guns. One way, then, to put things into perspective is to look at another city similarly fighting drug crime.

Kansas City is one such town, having received much media attention for its drug war. But the number of shootings by Kansas City police pales in comparison to Baltimore -- eight shootings in 1991, two fatal; five shootings in 1992, two fatal; eight shootings in 1993, three fatal; six in 1994, two fatal; four in 1995, none fatal; nine in 1996, four fatal; and four shootings by police so far this year, two fatal.

Ms. Jessamy's decision may end the Smothers case, but it will not end speculation that the police should use non-lethal methods more frequently when the situation allows. Police subdued a man with a knife two weeks ago by shooting him with a beanbag filled with lead pellets. The department has alternatives. It's time the mayor reassessed the policy that determines when those alternatives are used.

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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