Alternatives to deadly force City shooting: Questions again raised about police handling of mentally ill citizens.

January 26, 1998

BALTIMORE CITY police shot and killed a woman Monday. They said it was unavoidable.

Blanche H. Baker, 50, attacked officers with a knife. Pepper spray didn't stop her, so they fired their guns. Officers are trained to aim at an assailant's upper torso, because it provides a bigger target. They hit Ms. Baker at least twice; she died at Sinai Hospital.

Ms. Baker, according to police who talked to relatives, was mentally ill. She had a record of run-ins with police, including a 1995 arrest for second-degree assault with a deadly weapon. The incident was similar to the 1996 death of a woman with a history of mental illness. That woman, too, had not succumbed to pepper spray and attacked officers with a knife.

Did police take the right course in these confrontations? In Ms. Baker's case, officers answered a complaint about an armed woman roaming Govans. They called for help from a tactical squad. Such teams are equipped with devices that fire nets or beanbags, nonlethal methods to subdue violent people. But by the time help arrived, it was too late.

This reveals a flaw in police procedures. Officers may not have time to respond in any way other than to use deadly force. In some cases, though, they may have time to use nonlethal devices -- if they had them. Usually they don't.

Officers need alternatives beyond pepper spray; they can't always wait for the tactical squad. They need beanbag guns and nets. The department plans to buy more of these nonlethal weapons. The Schmoke administration should spend some of its tanticipated revenue surplus to equip every squad car with devices that could make deadly force unnecessary.

Beyond that, measures must be taken to reduce the number of confrontations between police and people with mental illnesses. Some who may not need to be kept in an institution require closer monitoring and intervention when they refuse to take prescribed medication. Maryland laws do a poor job of reconciling the rights of mental-health outpatients and the need to preserve public safety. It is time for state legislators to reassess these statutes.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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