Shootings by police climb

As violence in city increases, so does use of guns by officers

September 16, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

As homicides and shootings have soared in Baltimore this year, so too has the number of people shot by city police officers as the department struggles to curtail a surge in violence on the streets.

Three shootings last week brought the number of people shot by officers this year to 24, including nine fatally, higher than in each of the four previous years. In 2006, city officers shot 15 people, five of them fatally. In 2005, officers shot 14, including four fatally, and in 2004, police shot eight people, killing one of them.

Police officials give several possible explanations for the increase, pointing to more gang activity and brazen criminals, and officers being pushed to arrest more known violent offenders to curtail homicides.

"No one's pleased by the number of officer-involved shootings," said city police spokesman Sterling Clifford. "But given the circumstances, I don't think anyone is surprised as the police focus more on gun crimes and violent criminals."

Comparing police-involved shootings in Baltimore with other cities is difficult. These incidents, unlike other crime-related incidents, are not tracked by the federal government, and several cities contacted by The Sun said a formal written request is required before such information is released.

"That's something we have been fighting for decades," said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor at Washington State University. "Why isn't there a national reporting system? Most departments collect the data, but there's no repository."

In Baltimore, there has been no outcry from the community over the number of shootings involving police officers, and a department spokesman said that none of this year's cases has been questionable. But Clifford said the increase is "being looked at closely" by department commanders to determine whether training or use-of-force guidelines need to be updated or changed.

Alvin O. Gillard, director of the city's Community Relations Commission, said an independent civilian review board that examines police conduct has received one complaint about an officer-involved shooting in the past two years.

"To date, the board has not discussed or made a decision to look at the overall use-of-force policy as it relates to the police-involved shootings thus far this year," Gillard said.

In seven of this year's nine fatal shootings, the suspect was carrying a gun, police said. In the other two incidents, which took place last week, one man tried to stab his brother; and another man tried to grab the officer's gun.

Several experts say the level of violence in a city might be a factor in the number of police shootings, but they also point to other variables, such as training.

In Baltimore, homicides have increased significantly this year - 218 compared with 193 at the same time in 2006. And this year, police have taken more than 2,200 weapons off the streets.

"It's not a surprise if you have that many guns, if you have a high murder rate, that police are going to encounter people who are willing to use a gun," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

But O'Donnell said any significant increase in police-involved shootings should compel a department to take a closer look at its policies, procedures and training. "It should cause them to look at their firearms discipline and firearms review process, to see if it's adequate," he said.

Fatal and nonfatal shootings by police officers are reviewed in several ways. Homicide and internal affairs detectives investigate for potential criminal or administrative violations, and trainers in the academy look at each and decide whether training needs to be modified.

The police commissioner reviews the findings, and city prosecutors take a final look. This year, one fatal shooting and nine nonfatal shootings have been deemed justified by city prosecutors. The other cases remain under review, a state's attorney's office spokeswoman said.

Criminally charging officers in connection with a line-of-duty shooting is rare. Three officers have faced such sanctions in recent memory - all between 1993 and 1996 - and the only one convicted of manslaughter saw his case overturned on appeal.

Some police and union officials see a correlation between the rise in shootings and the overall rise in violence. Other experts say deadly-force incidents have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

"For every shooting that does occur, most people in the profession can give examples of 100 situations where officers would've been right to fire their weapon, and they didn't," said Sheldon F. Greenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership.

Police on the street say that residents are more likely to challenge officers than in the past and have lost respect for authority. Some blame the shootings on the growing presence of gangs on city streets.

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