Shootings of disturbed suspects spur debate over police tactics

Lethal force may be justified, but some say it can be avoided

May 23, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

On TV or in the movies, police trying to stop the bad guy routinely aim for the knees or shoulder and pull the trigger. Action heroes can even shoot a suspect's hand to make him drop his weapon.

Reality is quite different. Police officers who make the split-second decision to fire their weapons are trained to direct their fire toward the largest part of the human body: the upper torso.

After the fatal police shooting this month of a mentally ill, scissors-wielding teenager in Anne Arundel County, law enforcement officers are defending the necessity of that widely used policy.

Some public safety experts and members of the community, however, are asking whether its being legal makes it right - especially when the victim isn't a fleeing criminal but someone who is clearly psychologically troubled.

"These tragic shootings of people with mental illness may be legally justified because of the narrow and limited questions the law asks," David Rocah, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said. "But they are not unavoidable."

Rocah, who worked for the Department of Justice's police misconduct unit, and other criminal-justice observers argue that police need to try harder to avoid situations in which they have to use deadly force.

In the past year, Anne Arundel County police have shot four people - three of them mentally unstable, including a naked, unarmed man.

In the most recent case, police say Justin J. Fisher, 18, of Glen Burnie was suicidal when he charged at them early May 14 with the scissors. Four officers opened fire, shooting the Salisbury University freshman five times in the upper body.

O'Brien Atkinson IV, president of the Police Department's union, cautioned against second-guessing the judgment of the officers who were on the scene.

"A person can easily travel 21 feet and put a knife into you before you can get a gun out of your holster," he said.

Police officers, whether in Baltimore City or Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard or Harford counties, can generally operate one step above the threat to them.

A suspect who ignores an officer's commands but isn't threatening the officer or anyone else could receive a blast of pepper spray.

An officer who has been physically assaulted can fight back with his baton. And if an officer's - or someone else's - life is threatened, he can use deadly force.

Easiest target

Police officers who decide to shoot a person aim for the center of mass for a simple reason: They want to hit their target.

"Police are not the best shots in the world," said Doug Ward, associate director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University. "Even if they did try to shoot someone in the arm, they might miss them and shoot some innocent person half a block way."

Ward said officers would require daily shooting practice to get good enough to aim for a limb. Accurate shooting can be even harder if the target is moving, like a person running toward them.

And in any situation where officers need to pull out their guns, the rush of adrenaline makes it even harder to hit a target and underscores the importance for police officers to aim at the largest one, said R. Paul McCauley, a professor of criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

But Edward Mamet, a law enforcement consultant who was with the New York City Police Department for 40 years, stressed that tactics should shift when police confront mentally unstable people.

"When you are dealing with a criminal, you don't retreat. When you are dealing with an EDP [emotionally disturbed person] who could be your grandmother, you say, `The hell with the law' and back off."

Mamet said police can put space between themselves and the suspect. If the suspect runs toward an officer, the officer can move away, something that Mamet acknowledged is more challenging in an enclosed space like an apartment.

In dealing with mentally unstable suspects, Mamet said, the supervisor on the scene should establish "firearms discipline" to prevent more than one officer at a time from drawing his gun if the subject does something unpredictable.

"If one fires, the rest fire. It is called contagious shooting," Mamet said. "People start shooting; they don't even know why."

Training goal

The Baltimore Police Department's goal is to have officers on every shift in every district who are trained to respond to situations involving people with emotional and behavioral problems, said spokesman Matt Jablow.

About 100 officers, 911 call-takers and dispatchers have been through this training program, called BEST for Behavioral Emergency Services Team.

Anne Arundel County's Police Department has mobile crisis units, or teams of two mental health professionals who can assist officers with troubled suspects.

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