Cracking down on officers too quick on the trigger

Files show shootings rarely ruled improper

January 29, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police have shot 123 people in the past four years, killing three dozen. But even when officers open fire when they shouldn't, they rarely get in trouble.

A departmental crackdown on misconduct that has snared officers for offenses ranging from lying to sexual harassment has not included officers who misuse their weapons, the most potent form of force in an officer's arsenal.

In almost every shooting over the past four years, especially when the suspect survived, a supervisor has ruled the gunfire justified and well within the department's rules, a review by The Sun of more than 100 internal files has found.

"When the average citizen hesitates on the job, they might lose an account or deal," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the police union. "When an officer hesitates and is wrong, we are dead."

Virtually the only time an officer has been reprimanded in a shooting is for an accidental discharge, which usually results in a one-day suspension. Prosecutors in the city state's attorney's office say their office has never charged an officer with a crime in a nonfatal shooting.

Firearms instructors, however, review each incident with a more critical eye and often label a shooting "out of policy." Their conclusions are used to retrain officers in the proper use of weapons. Only rarely are they used to punish officers.

Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said last week that he has tightened his department's oversight of police-involved shootings and that they now are investigated as thoroughly as use-of-force complaints.

As a result, department investigators review every shooting. Frazier said an officer and a lieutenant are being investigated in separate questionable shootings, including one in which a man stealing a bottle of vodka was wounded in the back.

But police say officers usually are justified in using their guns. This month, three officers were shot at and two were slightly wounded.

"The police shootings within the past two weeks certainly highlight the dangers and the high degree of risk which officers face each and every day as they continue to remove guns and gun violators from Baltimore's communities," said the department's chief spokesman, Robert W. Weinhold Jr.

The number of police-involved shootings in Baltimore is about average for large U.S. cities. A recent independent study ranks Baltimore 14th of 28 cities studied in average number of people killed by police gunfire this decade.

A lack of statistics

The Sun examined files involving police shootings as part of a broad examination of how Baltimore law enforcers are punished for wrongdoing. Conclusions are difficult to draw because the department does not track discipline doled out in police-involved shootings.

Investigators' files on officers who fail to submit reports can be several inches thick and include dozens of interviews. Files on shootings, by contrast, are often thin, consisting of an offense report, a summary review by a supervisor and a brief critique by a firearms instructor.

Internal Investigation Division officials are unable to say how many officers have been punished for improper shootings. Investigators said none had; the Sun review found four since 1992.

"Cops cannot be second-guessed every time they take out their guns," said Charles "Joe" Key Sr., a firearms training supervisor who retired in 1996. "But there should be a review at least when they discharge. Some of these shootings rise to the level of criminal acts."

Two of the cases involved officers who fired at cars. In both, the officers said they shot at a vehicle careening toward them. Reviews, however, found that the bullets had been fired from behind or beside the vehicles. One officer was reprimanded, another suspended for three days.

Key, the architect of the Baltimore Police Department's rules on using force, had for years urged that a review board evaluate officers who fire their weapons.

But the idea -- which had the backing of former Assistant State's Attorney Timothy J. Doory, now a district judge -- has not been embraced by Frazier.

All shootings involving officers are investigated by homicide detectives, whose job is to determine whether a crime was committed. Instructors from the training division also investigate, using what they learn to teach recruits the appropriate ways to use their weapons.

The department forbids the use of firearms except in self-defense or to protect someone from "imminent threat of death or serious physical injury." The rules conclude: "Members must always bear in mind, `When in doubt, don't fire.' "

Police shootings that result in a death appear to be vigorously scrutinized by department commanders and city prosecutors. Three officers have been tried in recent years on criminal charges from fatal shootings in the line of duty.

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