Even in a city where senseless killings are not uncommon, the outburst of gunfire that left two people dead and four others wounded outside a downtown nightclub Sunday was shocking. Police are still piecing together what happened, but it appears that officers responding to a disturbance around closing time at the Select Lounge on North Paca Street fatally shot a fellow officer and an unarmed civilian in the course of dispersing an unruly crowd that had spilled onto to the street in front of the club. During the melee, police fired 41 shots from their service weapons, though there's no evidence anyone in the crowd other than the slain officer was armed.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called the shootings "a horrible incident," and she and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III pledged a full investigation into what happened, even going so far as to leave open the possibility of an outside review of the department's own internal probe. Foremost among the questions to be answered is whether the carnage early Sunday morning was the result of a fundamentally flawed policy regarding the way the department responds to civil disturbances or whether it was a consequence of stupendously bad judgment on the part of the individual officers involved. Whatever the case, the public — not to mention the families of those killed — needs assurance that those responsible are held to account and that something like this won't happen again.
Initial reports of the shooting suggested that William H. Torbit Jr., the 33-year-old plainclothes officer killed during the incident, was on duty when he was attacked by a group of people he was struggling to persuade to leave the area. During the melee, his badge apparently came off, leading uniformed officers who arrived on the scene a few minutes later to mistake him for a suspect. A witness said the uniformed officers opened fire on Officer Torbit when he reached for his service weapon. It's unclear exactly when the unarmed civilian, a 22-year-old man named Sean Gamble, who had no criminal record, was killed or which officer fired the fatal shot.
That account was corroborated in part by three people who witnessed the unfolding carnage from windows in nearby buildings. One woman said she heard two gunshots, then saw Officer Torbit lying motionless on the ground as other officers approached and repeatedly fired their guns in his direction. Another witness said Officer Torbit may have fired a single shot into the crowd, causing the other officers to then open fire on him. He said he saw "five or six" officers approach Officer Torbit as he lay on the ground, some of them still shooting.
Clearly, one of the first things police investigators are going to have to determine is whether the officers who responded to the scene after Officer Torbit's arrival reacted properly in discharging a total of 41 shots — some of which, one witness claims, were fired almost directly into the crowd. On the face of it, that seems excessive, especially given that three of the four people wounded during the shooting were female members of the crowd, and the other was one of the responding officers.
Commissioner Bealefeld has released the names of the five officers who fired their weapons during the incident, which speaks to the department's recognition that it needs to be as open as possible with the public as the investigation continues. But it is somewhat dismaying to discover that all five of these officers are experienced veterans on the force, not untested rookies. If they can get themselves into a situation where they are the cause of the death of a fellow officer and an innocent civilian — not to mention the wounding of three other civilians and one of their own colleagues — what does that say about the department's programs for training its officers and maintaining their fitness for duty?
These are hard questions Mr. Bealefeld is going to have to face no matter what facts the investigation eventually turns up, and they pose a major test for a police chief who has pledged to make greater openness and transparency a hallmark of his tenure. Mr. Bealefeld will have to show not only that his department can police its own officers' conduct, but also that it can recognize — and correct — systemic problems in the department that can lead to tragedies like Sunday's shooting. Only then can the public be assured that such a nightmare won't happen again.