A tragic outcome

October 14, 2003

GLORIA HOPKINS didn't have a chance. That's because the three police officers who shot her dead saw only a woman lunging at them with two knives. The officers she motioned into her Canton rowhouse that September afternoon didn't know Ms. Hopkins was despondent over a break-up with her boyfriend of seven years. They didn't know she was jobless. They didn't know she had been taking sleeping pills that might have contributed to her despair. But how could they have known?

Within two minutes of calling police for help, fearing that she was going to hurt someone, Ms. Hopkins lay dead in her rowhouse, shot by the officers when she refused to drop the knives and moved toward them in her house.

When the officers arrived at Ms. Hopkins' home, police knew that a woman had called 911, saying she thought she was "going to hurt someone." Were they prepared for the worst? Or did they let down their guard when Ms. Hopkins, standing in her window, waved them in?

Gloria Hopkins might have had a chance, if the officers had known that police were called to her house July 14. Police then found her on the floor after an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital. A police log notes the mental health nature of the call.

Police described the shooting of Ms. Hopkins as tragic. There have been other tragic outcomes for both Baltimore citizens and officers who have tried to help them, even when a person's mental illness was evident. For the past two years, police and mental health advocates have been working on a plan to establish a team of police officers specially trained to deal with the mentally ill. In Memphis, Tenn., in Seattle, in Montgomery County and elsewhere in Maryland, police have similar programs. Memphis police have a decade's worth of experience with this kind of intervention; they say their tragic outcomes have declined. This program is overdue here.

If Baltimore police had flagged Ms. Hopkins' address after that call in July, maybe the afternoon of Sept. 19 would have ended differently. Perhaps, at the outset, police would have called for an emergency vehicle unit equipped with electronic stun guns, a special net or rubber bullets to safely subdue a person who is a danger to herself or others. Maybe Ms. Hopkins, 48, would have had a chance then.

But the facts as we know them now amount to this: Three police officers, armed with guns and pepper spray, confronted a woman, small in stature, brandishing two knives. She refused demands to drop her weapons. All three officers shot her. It happened within two minutes.

As is custom, police are investigating the shooting. As is routine, the officers have been placed on leave. None has been involved in a previous shooting.

A funeral has been held for Ms. Hopkins. Her longtime boyfriend, John Dickson, wonders still: "I don't understand why it got to that point." He is not alone.

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