City OKs spending for officer's funeral, death investigation

Investigation continues into first 'friendly fire' death in 80 years

April 06, 2011|By Justin Fenton and Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

As an independent commission begins its review into a friendly-fire shooting that killed a Baltimore police officer in January, the city spending board on Wednesday approved $45,000 already spent for the officer's funeral and $75,000 to fund the commission's investigation of his death.

Officer William H. Torbit Jr. was fatally shot by fellow officers in January after responding in plainclothes to a disturbance outside a Paca Street club. Torbit was overcome by an unruly crowd and is believed to have fired his service weapon and killed a civilian, Sean Gamble. Other officers in the area then fired at Torbit, 33, unaware he was a fellow officer.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said in the days after the shooting that the Police Department's investigation of the first on-duty police-on-police shooting in 80 years was expected to take three weeks. But as of Wednesday, it was continuing, in consultation with the city state's attorney's office, according to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. Bealefeld has received a draft version of the department's investigation, the spokesman said.

In the meantime, a task force of experts appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has begun reviewing the findings with the intention of making recommendations.

Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that she was "satisfied that the investigation is thorough" and said the independent task force's work needs to be expedient but comprehensive.

"It's very important to me to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again," Rawlings-Blake said. "That's what Officer Torbit's mother asked of me."

The task force includes two former police chiefs and a former U.S. attorney for Maryland, and their work is voluntary. But city officials said the group requires reimbursement for expenses, as well as help from support staff, leading to the $75,000 tab approved at Wednesday's hearing.

Also approved at the meeting was $45,000 for Torbit's funeral. Those costs appear to far exceed the costs of a traditional funeral or other services for law enforcement officers.

Guglielmi said services for Officer Tommy Portz, killed in an on-duty crash, were about $15,000, and various websites place an average non-law enforcement funeral cost at about $10,000.

For Torbit's services, according to an invoice, the city paid Wylie Funeral Home $2,000 for touches such as a horse-drawn carriage and $400 for doves. But the bulk of the money was spent on catering (about $11,200), programs ($9,000), a Venetian bronze casket ($13,000) and flowers ($2,000), among other expenditures.

A rival funeral home manager, who declined to comment on the record because it is considered bad form to scrutinize fees of other funeral homes, said none of those costs in and of themselves were exorbitant, but all represent the highest possible range. The manager said the priciest funeral she had overseen was $14,000 total.

"Me personally, I've never sold a $13,000 casket. It has been sold [by others], but I haven't sold it yet," she said.

The city auditor, Robert L. McCarty, told WBAL-TV that the cost was "excessive" but said it had been properly accounted for. Representatives for Wylie Funeral Home could not be reached Wednesday night.

The mayor's spokesman said in a statement: "Mayor Rawlings-Blake believes that it is both reasonable and important for the Baltimore Police Department to properly honor fallen police officers who are killed in the line of duty. … The death of Officer Torbit was a terrible tragedy that shook our entire city to its deepest core."

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