Rhetoric clouds view of road rage shooting

November 06, 1999|By Gregory Kane

LEAVE YOUR car, lose a kneecap. That, in short, is the lesson learned from Baltimore's latest police shooting -- a road rage, macho idiocy affair that happened just over a week ago.

Here, according to police reports, is what happened.

Off-duty Officer Stuart Parker was driving his van north on Charles Street around 11 p.m. Oct. 29. Apparently, he got into a tiff with a man driving a compact car. The two exchanged words as they turned right down an unspecified street and then hung another right and headed south on St. Paul Street.

According to Rob Weinhold, the police department spokesman, the man in the compact car shouted at Parker as they drove along. He got behind the officer and tailgated his van. Parker pulled his car to the side at the corner of St. Paul and Preston streets. The man in the compact car got out and yelled at Parker through his window. The officer, feeling he was vulnerable while sitting in his van, also got out.

"Parker yelled `I'm a Baltimore City police officer,' " Weinhold reported. " `Stop where you are and get on the ground.' "

The man didn't stop. He walked toward Parker, who backed up and shouted at the man to freeze. As the man continued advancing with his arms "up and out," according to Weinhold, Parker drew his gun.

"The suspect then yelled `You think you can scare me with that thing?' " Weinhold said. When Parker could back up no further, the suspect lunged at him, forcing Parker to move his gun down suddenly. He fired one shot and hit the suspect in the right leg. Police identified the suspect as Dwight Allen and charged him with assault.

At his Thursday news conference, Mayor Kurt Schmoke added further details.

"I was at an event, and the police officer with me got a call of a police-involved shooting on East Preston Street," Schmoke said. The mayor thought the shooting might be in the Eastern District and in the same neighborhood where Larry Hubbard was shot to death by Officer Barry Hamilton last month. Hoping to defuse a potentially explosive situation, the mayor went to the shooting scene.

"I met with a passenger in the victim's car," Schmoke said. "The passenger told me the victim seemed to lose it. He kept after the cop and basically attacked him. The passenger said the officer got out of his van, and the first thing he said was, `Man, back off. I'm an off-duty city police officer.' "

Schmoke learned that Parker fired below the suspect's waist and shot him in the kneecap.

"My impression was he was trying to shoot him in the foot," the mayor added. "I looked at all the circumstances, and based on what I knew, I felt he [Parker] made a reasonable decision."

But isn't there something wrong with a police officer shooting an unarmed man as a result of a road rage traffic dispute?

"It's a judgment call," Schmoke said. "Sometimes [police] make the right call. Sometimes they don't."

Weinhold said Parker fired because he feared the suspect might wrestle with him and grab his gun. The department is investigating whether Parker took any inappropriate actions that may have escalated the incident.

So there it is. A clearer picture than the one we initially received. Those of us who believed Parker, in getting out of his car during a traffic dispute, should have taken his beating like the rest of us will probably sleep a little easier. A witness in the suspect's own car was a customer of the shooting victim, who was hacking. The passenger -- probably biased toward neither Parker nor the suspect -- testified that the officer did his best to be cool.

But in Baltimore's current anti-cop climate, some couldn't resist the urge to, once again, cast aspersions against the entire Police Department. Attorney A. Dwight Pettit, one of three lawyers for Hubbard's family, was quoted as saying that Baltimore cops might be "trigger happy."

Weinhold said not very long ago that not only is that untrue, but there are dozens upon dozens of instances where officers would be perfectly justified in firing their weapons but never do so.

Pettit and his colleagues -- Billy Murphy and Johnnie Cochran -- have a vested interest in promoting the notion that Baltimore cops are trigger happy and that police brutality is running rampant in Baltimore. The more these kinds of things are said, the more likely it is the Hubbard attorneys will get a jury to buy into them.

But potential jurors should consider these data: police brutality complaints have dropped 45 percent from January to September of this year as compared with the same period in 1998. And 1999's brutality complaints are less than 2 percent of the 6,773 arrests city police made from January through June.

It seems the only trigger-happiness extant involves the metaphorical triggers on the mouths of certain lawyers.

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