Scrutiny of Tshamba comes too late

Our view: The conduct of the officer charged in a fatal shooting outside a Mount Vernon club should have led to questions about his fitness for duty long ago

June 14, 2010

With the surrender of Baltimore Police Officer Gahiji A. Tshamba and his booking on first-degree murder charges in the fatal shooting of ex-Marine Tyrone Brown comes the necessary call by the city police union chief to consider the accused innocent until proven guilty. Mr. Tshamba has not given his side of the story, as is his right, and the matter of whether he will be held criminally responsible for the late-night shooting outside a Mount Vernon club — and for what offense — is ultimately up to a jury to decide.

But regardless of whether Mr. Tshamba is ever found guilty, it is clear that the killing of Mr. Brown was tragic and senseless. He was not armed. The action that reportedly raised Mr. Tshamba's ire — the inappropriate touching of the officer's girlfriend — did not justify a violent response of any kind, and according to witnesses, Mr. Brown had his hands in the air when the firing began. We cannot convict Mr. Tshamba before the trial, but it is certainly not too early to conclude that he made a terrible decision.

It's also not too early to question whether the Baltimore Police Department should have had reason to take him off the force long before he wound up in that alley just over a week ago. In the last week, news reports about Mr. Tshamba's past provide ample reason to conclude that the officer was leading a troubled life well before he pulled the trigger, and the police department now needs to answer whether it was aware of this pattern of conduct and whether it should have taken stronger action against the officer long ago.

Mr. Tshamba's colleagues describe him as a low-key and effective policeman on the job, and he was recognized with a Bronze Star for his role in a shooting in 1998, an incident in which he is credited with saving the life of a fellow officer. But off duty, he had a series of troubles. In 2005, he was driving drunk and got into an altercation with a group of young men in another car who shouted racial epithets at him. That incident ended with Mr. Tshamba shooting one of them in the foot. The shooting was ruled justified because the young men had threatened the officer, but Mr. Tshamba was sanctioned internally over the matter.

But an eight-day suspension with the loss of pay is a lighter penalty than a civilian might have gotten just for driving under the influence. And even if the actual shooting was ruled justified for criminal purposes, Mr. Tshamba, when confronted, chose to chase the young men's car into a residential neighborhood, even though he was drunk.

That incident wasn't the only one that should have led to questions about Mr. Tshamba's fitness to serve. In 2006, he lost control of his car — which was unregistered and uninsured — and smashed into a parked van and a light pole at a gas station. He has faced bankruptcy and civil suits over paternity, child support and unpaid rent.

In another profession, personal conduct off the job might not be any of his employer's business. But Mr. Tshamba's case has served as a reminder that Baltimore police officers are expected to carry their weapons at all times when they are in the city and are expected to take action to maintain order whether they are on duty or not. Did anyone in the police department see the signs that Mr. Tshamba's private life was troubled? Did anyone try to intervene?

When officers are involved in shootings, there's a tendency for many in the city to suspect that the department protects its own. In this case, the police department has generally acted swiftly and decisively, placing a top commander in charge of the investigation, bringing the case to State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy within days and authorizing a massive, regionwide manhunt for Mr. Tshamba when he went missing after charges were filed. The only fuel for questions about the department's response is its decision not to keep Mr. Tshamba under surveillance before he was charged, a decision that led to officers' inability to find him for more than 24 hours. Luckily, he turned himself in without incident early Sunday morning, but under the circumstances, the search might have ended much differently.

A Baltimore police spokesman said over the weekend that the failure to keep tabs on Mr. Tshamba before he was charged was in keeping with the department's treatment of this case as being like any other homicide investigation. But it's fair to wonder whether, at least subconsciously, the police gave officer Tshamba the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn't disappear once charges were filed, just as they seem to have given him the benefit of the doubt after the 2005 shooting and 2006 car crash. No matter how seriously the department has pursued its investigation of Mr. Tshamba, it doesn't erase the question of whether it should have taken his troubles more seriously long before he ever ran into Tyrone Brown.

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