A last resort

January 07, 2004

WAS IT A good shoot? In other words, was the police officer legally justified in firing his gun? That's usually the overriding question police ask after one of their own shoots a citizen. The reviews that take place seek to answer that question, but do they ask if the shooting could have been avoided?

The circumstances of the Dec. 8 shooting death of Cephus Smith appear justifiable, if you will. As police tell it, Mr. Smith, angry over a rent increase, shot and critically wounded the manager of his apartment complex (she died weeks later). He refused to surrender and threatened to kill himself. Police stormed his apartment and tried to subdue the gun-wielding Mr. Smith with a stun gun, but he opened fire. An officer then shot and killed him. On the face of it, a justifiable shooting. Nine days later, however, a police official raised concerns about whether the shooting was avoidable. As reported by The Sun, the official argued in a memo to his superiors that police should have negotiated longer with Mr. Smith. "All OPTIONS should have been exhausted," the official wrote.

We couldn't agree more. Not because this shooting appears unjustified - the Baltimore state's attorney will make that determination. But because police have an overriding responsibility to protect citizens. Lethal force should be used only as a last resort - and only after all other avenues have been pursued.

Baltimore police recorded four fatal shootings involving officers last year, an increase of one from 2002. Police were involved in seven nonfatal shootings in 2003; 10 were recorded in 2002. Of the fatal shootings, none led to criminal charges against police. But a police chief has to be concerned with more than the potential criminal aspects of a police-involved shooting. He has to ensure that police procedures are relevant and are followed, that officers are properly educated and trained. He has to be sensitive to the impact of a police shooting on a community.

After the Smith shooting, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark changed the way police shootings are to be reviewed: Now, a panel of top-level commanders appears before the commissioner within 24 hours of a shooting for a face-to-face analysis. The internal reviews and criminal investigations proceed as usual, but Mr. Clark's hands-on approach suggests the seriousness with which he views the use of lethal force by police. If problems are addressed immediately as a result, then both the police and the public will be better off.

Investigations of police shootings by the department and prosecutors need to be conducted in a timely manner - and the results shared with the public. Baltimoreans must feel confident that police are judicious in their use of force and avoid the chance to use it.

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