Tactics of officers faulted in city killing

Commander's memo says police stormed in too soon

Elderly suspect in shooting died

January 06, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Shots between Baltimore police and an elderly suspect that led to his death might have been avoided had officers not stormed the gunman's apartment prematurely, according to an internal memo written by a top commander.

The memo to Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark also said the assault needlessly endangered the officers.

"I certainly don't have a `crystal ball,' but I feel continuing the negotiation attempts, gathering additional intelligence, and utilization of additional tools was more prudent and possibly could have prevented the shooting death of a 78-year-old suspect," wrote Maj. Michael Andrew in the memo dated Dec. 17. "Not to mention my feeling that we unnecessarily placed our officers `in harm's way.'"

Andrew, commander of the Eastern District and a 30-year veteran, was at the scene.

His memo, obtained by The Sun, describes the shooting Dec. 8 of Cephus Smith, who had just fatally wounded an apartment manager at Oliver Plaza, housing for the elderly in the 1400 block of E. Oliver St.

Outside experts said the memo, a rare instance of internal criticism of a police shooting, raises serious questions about Baltimore police procedures and agreed that commanders should have waited longer before sending officers into the man's apartment.

Police officials declined yesterday to discuss the memo or details of the shooting. They said they were conducting a thorough investigation of the incident, which began when Smith went downstairs and angrily confronted Stephanie Gilliam, 50, over a $10 rent increase. Smith shot the building manager three times before returning to his second-floor apartment, police said last month.

An hour later, just after noon, officers rushed into Smith's apartment behind a bulletproof shield. Despite shocking him twice with a 50,000-volt Taser device, they failed to subdue him, and he fired his pistol. An officer returned fire, hitting Smith three times and killing him, police officials said.

Gilliam died Dec. 28.

"We are looking into the shooting," said police spokesman Matt Jablow. "We are looking at every aspect of the shooting to see if there were any procedural or administrative problems. We're not going to talk about specifics."

Jablow said officers entered the apartment because of concerns raised by threats Smith had made to police that he would harm himself.

Andrew declined to comment on the memo and referred all questions to Jablow.

After Smith barricaded himself in his apartment, which is next to a stairwell, officers evacuated the building and secured the area, police officials said.

Andrew arrived about 10:50 a.m., just after officers had finished talking to Smith, according to his memo.

"The suspect talked with officers before my arrival (through the door and on his telephone) and stated that he was not going to jail and the police would have to shoot him if they attempted to arrest him," Andrew wrote, adding later that he believed that Smith was trying to commit suicide by having police shoot him.

Andrew summoned members of the police Technical Assistance Response Unit who have sophisticated cameras and other gear that would allow them to "possibly look inside the apartment to gather additional intelligence," the memo said.

On his way to the command post, Andrew met Maj. Jesse Oden, commander of the police tactical units, who said the sophisticated equipment wasn't needed because officers were going to handle the situation a different way, according to the memo.

Soon afterward, Oden ordered officers of the Emergency Services Unit - a branch of the tactical division - into the apartment, and one of them fired the fatal shots, police officials said.

Oden, who did not respond to two messages left at his office, could not be reached for comment.

"My foremost concern is why the officers prematurely entered the apartment to confront an armed suspect when the apartment was properly secured and time was our most crucial asset," Andrew wrote. "Since there were no hostages involved, no overt acts by the barricaded person to shoot out of the apartment, and no indication that the suspect was preparing to exit his apartment, we should have continued trying to contact the suspect while we gathered additional intelligence."

Writing that the department did not use all the tools at its disposal, including cameras and tear gas, Andrew suggested that the officers were put in jeopardy when they tried to use the Taser, a nonlethal device, to bring down Smith, who had demonstrated a willingness to kill.

"ALL OPTIONS should have been exhausted" before sending officers into the room, Andrew wrote.

At the end of the four-page memo, Andrew noted a similar incident on Dec. 17 involving an armed man in a liquor store. Police waited for several hours, and the suspect eventually surrendered.

Outside experts who reviewed the memo and news accounts of the shooting said police appear justified in killing Smith because he fired at them first. But they said Andrew's criticism raised questions about police tactics.

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