Shooting puts focus on police decisions

Death of teen, 14, sparks debate on the appropriate use of deadly force on aggressive suspects


The weekend killing of a 14-year-old boy by a Baltimore police officer is reviving a controversial issue for the department: When is the right time to use deadly force to stop aggressive suspects?

As investigators probe the fatal shooting of Kevin Cooper inside his home Saturday morning, his family's lawyer challenges the officer's account, saying that the boy's behavior did not warrant such a violent reaction.

But experts who train officers cautioned that these kinds of volatile domestic situations require split-second decisions by officers worried about the safety of bystanders as well as their own.

Options like blinding Mace, disabling batons and Taser stun guns can be employed effectively to force many suspects into compliance.

Still, according to several former police commanders and authorities in tactical procedures, the public should not be lulled into thinking that every suspect can and should be subdued by those less-than-lethal methods.

"Anybody could easily say that the officer should have backed away, but was the individual in such a dangerous state that he was he going to hurt his mother?" said retired Maj. Gary D'Addario, a former Baltimore homicide shift commander. "Were other people going to be injured? Could he hold his mother hostage?"

Police have said that Kevin Cooper had no juvenile arrest record but did have disciplinary issues in the classroom.

Homicide investigators have learned that Kevin attended the New Foundations school in Baltimore for two years, said Police Department spokesman Matt Jablow. The school educates emotionally disturbed children in elementary through high school grades. About 30 students attend the Franklin Street school in Mount Vernon.

A former teacher said last night that Kevin was expelled from the school after he threw a desk at a male teacher and injured him. The former teacher also gave that account to Baltimore homicide investigators, which The Sun independently corroborated.

Yesterday, the boy's family referred all calls to their lawyer, A. Dwight Pettit, who did not return several messages yesterday. School officials could not be reached for comment.

Baltimore police defended the shooting as justified, saying the boy had hit the officer and threatened him with a jagged broken broom handle. At the time of the shooting, the officer was alone with the family, which might have been a critical factor, according to experts who declined to comment directly on the case.

"There are many factors involved. But sometimes calling for backup or having more officers at the scene can help end a situation without using lethal force," said Charles Joe Key, a private consultant for the city and former Baltimore police lieutenant who helped write the department's guidelines for using force.

According to the official police account, Officer Roderick Mitter, 26, came to the boy's home with another officer. Once the situation calmed down, Mitter stayed to take information for a report when Kevin "became very agitated," according to police.

Department officials said the boy attacked Mitter with a broom handle. As Cooper's mother attempted to step between the two, the officer used Mace on the boy several times, to no avail, police said.

It was the second fatal shooting by a city officer in a little more than a week.

Police said the boy's mother called them to her Southwest Baltimore home Saturday morning and reported that she needed help because her son was assaulting her.

Kevin hit Mitter over the head with the broom handle, breaking it in two, according to police. Mitter drew his gun. When Cooper moved toward him with a jagged piece of the handle, Mitter shot the boy in the shoulder.

The youth later died at St. Agnes Hospital.

Pettit, the family lawyer, has offered a different story: Kevin never struck the officer, who provoked the boy, sprayed him with Mace and shot him.

Key said that Mace is effective in disabling a person about 80 percent of the time.

"But stopping people does not mean that they are totally incapacitated," said the retired commander, who has analyzed more than 500 police-involved shootings in Baltimore. "There is still the potential for violence."

A broken broom handle, he said, could be considered an impact weapon. In those cases, an officer could have also used a baton against an unruly suspect if the pepper spray failed, according to Key.

"But what an officer does not want to do is engage in a duel," he said.

Again, Key cautioned against rushing to judgment, saying that the level of force used by police is case-specific.

"The standard is whether an objectively reasonable officer would have used the same level of force under the circumstances," Key said.

Another nonlethal option is a Taser gun, but most Baltimore officers do not have them. The stun weapons have been criticized by some for causing fatalities. Others have said that they are not effective enough to use in most situations with suspects.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.