What is and isn't in the line of duty


February 13, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

AN ELDERSBURG man is shot to death by criminals. The valorous act that led to the victim's murder is widely, deservedly praised. And after the flush of public indignation and sorrow come the questions about the future for the deceased and especially for his family.

Police Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero's fatal tale involves three communities: Pikesville, where he was gunned down by escaping jewel robbers Monday; Baltimore County, where he was a decorated officer with 12 years service; and Carroll County, where his wife and the couple's five small children grieve in ways that few of us can truly comprehend.

Sergeant Prothero's action in the daylight robbery of J. Brown Jewelers was virtually instinctive. He ran after the armed criminals as they fled the Pikesville store. The officer was apparently trying to get the license plate number of their getaway vehicle before it sped off. Gunshots from the fugitives cut short Sergeant Prothero's life at 35 years.

Baltimore County officials immediately proclaimed that the policeman was killed in the line of duty. That phrase, with its legal implications, has been embraced by the community and police agencies as they grapple with the tragic episode.

Make no mistake, Sergeant Prothero displayed certain courage and professional commitment to pursue the armed criminals. Police officers say he was doing what every sworn officer is supposed to do, no matter whether on the official duty shift or not.

It is his employment at the time that gives rise to questions.

He was working on his day off as a private guard for the jewelry firm. He'd done that job before, moonlighting to support his family and allow his wife Ann to stay at home caring for their triplets and two other small children.

It's not uncommon for police officers to take on such part-time private jobs as security guards or traffic control officers. Their training, ability and possession of firearms make them a desirable prospect for many an outside employer.

Sergeant Prothero was in civilian clothes, employed by the store, with no idea that the jeweler would be robbed that day. He'd experienced a previous holdup at the shop and had chased the culprit, getting the car's license tag number. He did the same thing after last week's robbery, with extreme consequences.

So -- and here is the sensitive part -- was he killed in the line of duty or was he killed off-duty? If he had been moonlighting as a stock clerk or salesman at the store, would he have been considered killed in the line of duty?

The distinction is not just idle musing and sophistry.

For his wife, Ann, and the children at their Eldersburg home, the difference can mean the receipt of various important survivor benefits or their denial.

That may be of secondary interest to them now, but it will be more important in the years to come. For example, children of a fallen police officer are given up to $30,000 for college, under federal law, and the officer's family can receive up to $150,000 in death benefits.

More immediate is the decision to place his name on a monument to Baltimore County police officers who were killed while serving the public.

The gray granite monument in Towson's courthouse square has four names carved on it. The last name was inscribed more than a dozen years ago. All of the men (no women) died on official police duty.

Other police officers have died off-duty in the 125 years since the Baltimore County department was created. That is the nature of human life.

Indeed, would an officer who died while on extended medical leave be eligible for inclusion on the memorial? An officer on clerical duty who succumbed at her desk? For the Baltimore City police memorial under construction, an officer who died of a heart attack at home soon after strenuous duty is to be listed.

While the discussion can stray to many speculative possibilities, the case of Bruce Prothero has been decided by Baltimore County. His name will appear on the police memorial, county officials say. The operative consideration is that he was slain in performance of his police duty, giving chase outside the jewelry store.

That decision is appropriate. But it may cause concern for relatives of other Baltimore County police officers who met their ultimate fate off-duty, while still employed by the department. What does that memorial actually stand for? What is meant by "in the line of duty" or "in performance of service"?

Is a sworn officer always on duty, regardless of his official shift? Is his reaction always one of responding as a peace officer or as a lawful-duty civilian when he is not on the shift roster?

An off-duty paid firefighter or volunteer firefighter who rushes to rescue people caught in a blaze is in a similar situation. And so on.

Lots of questions, lots of shades of fact and opinion. None of which are of help to the Prothero family. Fortunately, they have a strong church family at Reisterstown United Methodist to fall back on. There's a move to create trust funds from donations for the family's welfare.

But as we ponder the question of on-duty, off-duty of our public safety servants, let's ask ourselves if we would have taken the courageous action that Sergeant Bruce Prothero did last week.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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