Commission: Lack of supervision, training led to police shooting

November 03, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

An independent commission reviewing January's fatal police shooting outside the Select Lounge found that supervisors failed to take control of a chaotic scene, with Officer William H. Torbit Jr. making a series of missteps that exacerbated the situation and contributed to his own death.

Those conclusions were among 33 sweeping recommendations made by the panel, appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to examine the circumstances surrounding a shooting that left two dead and four wounded — the Baltimore Police Department's first incident of on-duty, fatal friendly fire in 80 years.

Highlighting gaps in training and problems with police investigations of controversial incidents, the report offers a "blueprint for how the department can improve its policies and procedures," Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said at an afternoon news conference Thursday.

Rawlings-Blake said that the police department would work to implement all of the panel's recommendations within 90 days. "Their findings and recommendations help us to better understand what happened that night and improve training for our officers and help ensure nothing like this ever happens again," she said, calling the shooting a "tragedy that shook us to our deepest core."

Besides changes to police policies, the commission's report may have implications for the city's nightlife scene. Officials said they will seek legislation to create a permitting process for party promoters, in light of a finding that overbooked venues contribute to volatile situations outside.

Rawlings-Blake said she has not considered creating a standing independent review board, which exists in cities like Los Angeles. Asked if she has confidence in the leadership of the Police Department, Rawlings-Blake replied simply: "Yes."

The police union, meanwhile, chafed at the report's findings that were critical of the officers. "The increased training — that's all well and good, but all the training in the world, unfortunately, may sometimes never really fully prepare our officers for a situation like this, which was a tragic perfect storm," said the union's president, Robert F. Cherry.

The shooting occurred as the Select Lounge was closing on Jan. 9. Torbit was among 30 officers who responded to help corral a crowd at a parking lot at North Paca and Franklin streets, and he soon found himself involved in an altercation with rowdy club patrons.

Torbit fired his weapon as he was being kicked and stomped, killing 22-year-old Sean Gamble. Four other officers, Harry Pawley, Harry Dodge, Toyia Williams, and Latora Craig, then shot at Torbit before realizing he was a fellow officer.

While briefly fielding questions from reporters, Bealefeld rejected the idea that there was a fundamental breakdown in policing that night, describing it as an "incredible series of extraordinary circumstances."

Yet the report is not only critical of the officers' split-second decision-making, but of the Police Department's overall policies and practices.

For example, the panel found that for years, the department has failed to conduct "after-action" training reviews of police-involved shootings, investigating shootings for criminal wrongdoing but not for tactical assessments to prevent future incidents.

State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein said in August that the officers were legally justified in using lethal force and would not face charges. The commission agreed that the shootings were justified but said that came with "important qualifications," including the finding that Torbit made decisions that placed him in a situation that required deadly force.

Torbit, 33, who was working plainclothes and left a vest that would have identified him as an officer in his trunk, should have been accompanied by his partner before wading into the crowd, and witnesses said he used profane language with agitated bar patrons that escalated the confrontation.

"The seemingly minor decisions he made had a cumulative effect of placing Officer Torbit in a position that left him no other alternatives than to use deadly force," the report found.

The panel also said that the four officers who shot at Torbit created a danger to the crowd of civilians nearby, "exacerbated by poor marksmanship and undisciplined shooting." It noted that there were other officers present who witnessed the same incident unfolding, including a city schools police officer, but they did not draw their weapons.

Rawlings-Blake appointed the panel in February, selecting researchers and former law enforcement officials. They convened seven times and interviewed 20 witnesses in addition to poring over police documents and investigative files.

Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Rawlings-Blake should be commended for her willingness to "look under rocks and seek reform.

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