City police respond to Select Lounge shooting report

Department promises reforms in training, tracking night life issues

March 15, 2012|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore police issued a formal report Thursday agreeing to carry out recommendations from an independent commission that gave a stinging assessment of last year's Select Lounge shooting, in which a plainclothes officer was mistakenly shot and killed by his colleagues.

The 102-page response details promises made by the police commissioner in November to prevent another shooting like the one that killed Officer William H. Torbit and a civilian, and wounded several bystanders in the midst of a chaotic, unruly crowd.

Changes that have been made or are under way include better training, barring officers not in uniform from handling crowd control, and working to establish better licensing and enforcement of large-scale entertainment areas and their promoters.

Police also said they will try to more quickly conduct administrative reviews of police-involved shootings to learn from mistakes, a process that under current guidelines can be delayed for months or even years with criminal investigations.

James "Chips" Stewart, the chairman of the mayoral-appointed commission and a former police commander in Oakland, Calif., praised the department's response. "Rather than circle the wagons, they said, 'We're going to change,'" he said.

He added that Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III is "saying the department has to step up and follow its ipolicies. … I'm impressed with the effort they put into it."

Robert F. Cherry, president of the city police union, said he didn't see too many issues to disagree with in the department's response, with the exception of changes in investigating police shootings. He complained about being left out of the process.

"This is supposed to make everyone feel good, but does it accomplish what we want to accomplish?" Cherry said. "Issues of how plainclothes officers are deployed, training, stuff like that, that's all fine and well. … This was a perfect storm, and the commissioner and the mayor for political purposes put this commission together. In a lot of ways, they're reinventing the wheel."

The Jan. 9, 2011, shooting occurred as the Select Lounge was closing for the night, and officers were trying to clear a crowded parking and end several fights. Torbit was among 30 officers who responded to help disperse the crowd at North Paca and Franklin streets.

The independent commission said officers from several districts had little command or oversight, leading to a chaotic scene, and it singled out Torbit for getting involved in an argument that worsened the situation. The report also criticized allowing plainclothes officers to respond to crowd scenes because of the potential they won't be recognized by either civilians or other police.

Almost immediately after the shooting, Bealefeld required officers in plainclothes to wear yellow vests or jackets emblazoned with the word "police." Authorities also outlined a new command structure for dealing with crowds, clearly delineating who reports to whom.

The commission was particularly critical of the department's policy of waiting until homicide detectives and prosecutors conclude investigations before launching internal reviews of police-involved shootings.

Part of the reason is that officers who shoot someone are automatically subject to a criminal investigation, and can't be compelled to give statements that might incriminate themselves.

That, the independent commission concluded, undermines the agency's "ability to fulfill its responsibility to determine compliance with policy or any policy shortcomings."

The Police Department's response is an attempt at compromise — seeking voluntary statements from officers within 30 days of a shooting. If an officer refuses, the department can compel a statement but cannot share it with detectives. It can be used only for commanders to study the incident.

Cherry, the union president and a former homicide detective, said he is asking lawyers to review this language to ensure it conforms to labor agreements. He questioned whether officers giving statements that detectives can't see could undermine criminal investigations.

The review commission also recommended that police have more oversight on large clubs and party promoters, which police said they are exploring.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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