When damsels really aren't in distress

Shootings began with men protecting women but end in fatalities

August 20, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Maybe it's a girl thing. Or rather, if only it had stayed a girl thing.

That's what I thought, watching two cases that have been winding through the criminal justice system recently.

On Tuesday, the now fired but then off-duty Baltimore policeman Gahiji Tshamba was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing a former Marine outside a Mount Vernon bar last year. And last week, the state's attorney decided against charging city police officers in the friendly-fire shooting that left fellow officer William Torbit dead outside another nightclub in January.

Beyond both cases involving officers doing the shooting, and both starting with stupid, early-Sunday-morning dust-ups outside bars, there was another thread between the two cases: a misguided sense of chivalry.

As in, men standing up for women, who seemed to have already settled the matters on their own.

Tshamba "seriously overreacted," as Circuit Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon said at sentencing, when the victim, Tyrone Brown, drunkenly grabbed the butt of a woman who was with the off-duty officer that night. The woman testified at the trial that she slapped Brown in return, which strikes me as an understandable and even well-deserved response to the crude act.

In the other case, Torbit, who was not in uniform but on a plainclothes detail that night, had just broken up an argument between two women outside the Select Lounge: One was driving from the club and bumped or brushed back the other, who, angered that the driver didn't apologize, whacked the car with her shoe.

Again, an understandable response — although maybe the driver didn't even realize she'd done anything to the other woman, Jazzmin Graves — but in any event, after Torbit intervened, after words were exchanged, both women had headed off in their separate ways.

But, of course, neither incident ended there.

Tshamba turned a drunken grope into a felony offense by pulling out his service revolver and shooting Brown 12 times.

And an acquaintance of Graves who was leaving the Select Lounge, Sean Gamble, took offense at how Torbit "messed with a female," a friend told police, and confronted him. Shoving and punching ensued, other clubgoers jumped in, and the way-outnumbered Torbit shot and killed Gamble. Meanwhile, arriving police, not realizing the man with the gun was a fellow officer, shot and killed Torbit.

Needless deaths, all three of them. There are all sorts of policy implications here: The requirement that officers carry their guns off-duty while in the city and be ready for duty at all times doesn't account for how a Saturday night of partying fits into that. Then there's the issue of plainclothes details, and how other officers can recognize one of their own when he or she isn't in uniform. In the Torbit case, at least, an independent panel of law enforcement experts has been appointed to review the incident and make recommendations.

But then, there's human nature, not something that can be easily revised with a policy change. Maybe it has always been thus: A man perceives another man as threatening his womenfolk, he's not going to stand by.

Nor should he, or anybody actually, male or female, who is in the position of protecting someone smaller or weaker or otherwise in danger. But in both of these cases, the threats didn't seem so much to the women as to the pride of the men.

Throw booze, and guns, into this already potent mix, and everything is heightened: Both the perception of threat, and the reaction to it. From what I've read, these incidents spun out of control so quickly, that once under way, it was all but inevitable that there would be tragic outcomes.

And all because damsels were thought to be in distress.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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