Shooting first

May 17, 2006

Sunday's fatal shooting of an 18-year-old Salisbury University freshman armed with a pair of scissors was a terrible tragedy. But might it have been prevented? While it's unwise to jump to conclusions, the incident raises concerns. The police officers may have felt sufficiently threatened by Justin James Fisher to justify their actions. But the public deserves a full accounting of what happened and a thorough review of police procedures in such cases, particularly in light of several other recent shootings by Anne Arundel County police officers.

Mr. Fisher, a one-time star football player at Cardinal Gibbons School, was shot five times by four officers. Police say they stopped his car in Pasadena and spent 35 minutes trying to get him to surrender before he charged them with 9-inch scissors. The Glen Burnie teen had earlier threatened to injure himself and his girlfriend. His family said he suffered from a mental illness.

So why didn't police attempt to use a nonlethal weapon to the subdue him? Anne Arundel Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan has promised to re-examine departmental policies regarding such weapons. Currently, a limited number of officers carry shotguns that fire beanbags to temporarily disable suspects. Officers do not yet carry Tasers (although they were recently authorized by the County Council).

This is not the first incident to raise worries. Last May, a rookie police officer shot and killed a naked, unarmed and apparently delusional Glen Burnie man. When a grand jury declined to indict the officer on criminal charges last September, Chief Shanahan said, "I wish there was a way of using less than lethal force." There is. Other police agencies routinely use nonlethal weapons.

Confronting someone known to be mentally ill often requires police to exercise specialized tactics. Were officers too aggressive with Mr. Fisher? Had they been sufficiently trained for such a scenario?

Considering other recent shootings of suspects by county police - a suicidal man with a rifle two weeks ago and two days later, a robbery suspect in Curtis Bay - the questions are more than justified. Anne Arundel County police have been involved in as many shootings in 2006 as their equivalents in Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Harford counties put together. More answers are needed.

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