FBI's use of deadly force demands accountability

March 14, 2002|By David Simon

HERE'S A fundamental truth about police work in America:

In this country, only a law enforcement officer has the authority to use deadly force against fellow citizens in time of peace.

As a well-armed society, we find it necessary to arm our law officers as a consequence and to accept that they will have to use those weapons as an act of personal deliberation.

This is an extraordinary right. But on foot patrol, in a radio car, on drug raids or during car stops, there can be no body politic to deliberate such matters.

It comes down to a solitary civil servant reaching for the right decision in a terrifying instant. We train people for that instant. We pray that they act correctly.

One other fundamental truth about police work was absolutely clear to nearly everyone, save for the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office and, perhaps, the U.S. attorney for Maryland:

If American citizens grant law officers the right to carry and use firearms with deadly force, it comes with an equal measure of responsibility.

When a firearm is used in the line of duty, an individual and an agency are both responsible for that action.

If a law officer exercises his right to lethal force, his actions are accounted and declared to the public he serves. He does not hide behind an arbitrary grant of anonymity; he is publicly identified as an acknowledgment that when he accepted the extraordinary rights granted to a law officer, he also accepted the responsibilities.

The recent shooting of an unarmed suspect by Special Agent Christopher Braga, 35, of the Baltimore field office of the FBI during a traffic stop in Anne Arundel County seems, at first glance, to be a tragic failure on the part of that agency and of one agent in particular.

Yet initially, the FBI resisted all efforts by the public to identify Special Agent Braga. The U.S. attorney for Maryland remained mute. They held to this policy for a week.

When the FBI released the agent's name, officials said they did so only because local newspapers, having obtained the information from other sources, were forcing their hand.

Yet every other police agency in this country understands that when one of its officers uses deadly force, it is an action that demands accountability to the public.

Moreover, many of those agencies -- if asked -- would also provide information indicating whether a specific officer had been involved in past shootings and, further, whether any citizen complaints against an officer for excessive use of force had been sustained by administrative review. How else for the public to know whether a problem might exist with a particular officer?

Local FBI officials said they were following a bureau-wide policy in refusing to identify the responsible agent. Perhaps, but the policy is both wrong and contemptuous of the citizenry the FBI seeks to serve. Beyond that, the agent in charge of the Baltimore office suggested that the anonymity of agents needs to be maintained to protect them from possible retribution.

Remarkable.

Maryland troopers, federal ATF agents and Baltimore police officers who every day police some of the toughest terrain in America are routinely identified by their agencies when they exercise deadly force. Are all of those law officers at lesser risk than FBI agents? And what about ordinary citizens asked by law enforcement to assist their efforts by testifying openly in criminal courts, knowing that they can be identified publicly for doing so?

Even as the agent was finally identified, FBI officials couldn't help but reveal just how self-serving and ethically bankrupt their policy actually is.

Lynne A. Hunt, the head of the Baltimore FBI office, noted that Special Agent Braga is a former Marine officer, a decorated Persian Gulf war veteran and a trained member of an FBI tactical team.

Adding that Special Agent Braga is a husband and father of three young children, Special Agent Hunt said she did not want him to be perceived as a "faceless agent."

She thereby made it clear that when the FBI believes that information about an agent involved in the shooting of a citizen might be perceived in a positive light, she and the bureau stand ready to provide it. Presumably, if the agent involved had no military service, a spotty record with the bureau and a divorce from a childless marriage, then faceless he might remain.

Given that the FBI's actions in this matter have suddenly gone from a blanket declaration of policy to a belated attempt at spin, how is the public to believe that the bureau's review of this matter will lead to a full airing of facts? Can this same Special Agent Hunt be relied upon to reveal the full facts of the probe, or will we hear from her only when certain facts serve her agency's interest?

If FBI officials here wish to retain the right to exercise deadly force against Maryland citizens -- as well as the respect of that citizenry -- they, and the U.S. attorney who oversees them, will take a hard look at their performance in this matter. And they will find a way to achieve the kind of public accountability required of all other law enforcement officers.

David Simon, an author, journalist and television producer, covered crime for The Sun from 1982 to 1995. He lives in Baltimore.

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