Police-on-police shootings spark reform

Confrontations between plainclothes officers and uniformed counterparts common across country, study says

January 15, 2011|By Peter Hermann, Justin Fenton and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Last weekend's fatal shooting of a plainclothes Baltimore police officer — by colleagues who mistook him for an assailant — has taught a stunned force the same hard lesson learned by other agencies whose officers made similar deadly mistakes.

In 27 cases across the country since 1980 in which police officers were mistakenly killed by other officers, all but one involved a victim who was not in uniform. Among them was last Sunday's shooting of Officer William H. Torbit Jr., an eight-year veteran of the Baltimore police force who was killed by fellow officers while trying to break up a rowdy crowd outside a club.

In most cases, police in other cities responded to the tragedies by ordering plainclothes officers back into uniform — as Baltimore did as an interim fix while reviews are under way — or to wear color-coded bandanas or jackets. Most launched investigations aimed not only at determining whether the shootings broke any laws, but also at instituting reforms.

And they often bore another similarity to the Torbit killing: Typically, the victim was black.

A commission appointed by Gov. David Paterson in New York after two off-duty officers were killed by friendly fire in 2009 came to a startling conclusion: While fatalities are rare, tense encounters between uniformed and plainclothes officers are routine in cities around the nation.

"We found that fatal police-on-police shootings are merely the tip of the iceberg of confrontations between on-duty police officers (usually in uniform) and their off-duty, plainclothes, or undercover counterparts," the report issued last May says. "These confrontations occur every day, and while most are defused without injury, each contains the seed of a tragedy."

The New York report's examination of three decades of police-on-police shootings found a "disturbing trend" of minority officers being mistaken for criminals, especially when they have their guns drawn and are interacting with suspected criminals.

"In almost every case of police-on-police shootings, it almost always involves an officer [out of uniform] with a gun drawn," said Christopher Stone, a professor of criminal justice at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who chaired the commission. "Research with officers of every race shows that you're faster to make the judgment that a black man with a gun in plainclothes is a criminal, not a police officer."

The issue of race has yet to be publicly raised in Baltimore; Torbit was black and of the four officers who shot him, two are black and two are white.

Police shootings in other cities have prompted much soul-searching and implementation of new policies, though the officers who fired their weapons have rarely been charged, with grand juries rejecting charges or inquiries clearing officers of criminal wrongdoing.

The Select Lounge shooting in Baltimore involved not only the death of an officer but the killing of an unarmed civilian, 22-year-old Sean Gamble. Already, police commanders have ordered that all officers working in operational roles must wear uniforms or vests or jackets, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has pledged an outside review, drawing criticism from the city police union.

"The police investigation and the outside review will help us understand exactly what happened and help us learn from it and make sure that nothing like it happens again," the mayor said in a statement Wednesday. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the department must "emerge better."

Bealefeld has made training a hallmark of his tenure, sending entire shifts of officers to a 30-day program in which they participate in "active shooter" training and interact with the community. Police-involved shootings fell from 33 in 2007 to 10 last year.

The New York commission made several recommendations for preventing friendly-fire incidents, including interactive-scenario-based training similar to that used in Bealefeld's program. But the panel also called for better testing and training for unconscious racial bias; focused training on issues of race and diversity; and common protocols across departments for how to respond to incidents. It also called for increased transparency from prosecutors and police as they investigate shootings.

Some departments have also begun testing new recruits for racial bias before and after their training, and continuing through the early stages of their police careers. Stone said the goal is to stop the quick, racial stereotyping someone makes when seeing a black man with a gun. An extra split-second of thought, even under tremendous pressure, could help avoid some of these shootings, he said.

Baltimore has learned some of these lessons before.

In 1984, a police officer shot at and grazed a plainclothes detective in a West Baltimore alley during a call for a drug transaction. City police at the time ordered officers in civilian clothes to wear raid jackets, though the directive ended quietly.

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