Tale of two incidents.

Two recent incidents demonstrate that actions taken by officers of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) cannot be viewed through a single prism.  Although the first incident underscores the fact that there remains a systemic problem involving the violation of citizens’ rights, the second incident reminds us that policing in a city awash in drugs, gangs, and guns can be dangerous and that our expectations of officers must be tempered accordingly.  It is unfair to jump to the conclusion that the second incident is a product of the type of police behavior exhibited in the first incident.

On April 16th a BPD officer was caught on video forcefully removing 18 year old Tionne Jones from inside the doorway of his home without a warrant and placing him under arrest.  Charges of disorderly conduct against the 18 year old were dropped by the State’s Attorney upon recommendation of the “executive team” of the BPD after the video was posted online.  Making the situation more troubling is the fact that a BPD lieutenant had initiated the investigation of what he believed to be a breaking and entering and called the arresting officer to the scene.  Jones appeared guilty of nothing more than vociferously (and correctly) telling the lieutenant that he lived in the house and that police could not enter without a warrant.  For that he was pulled from his home, thrown to the ground, and arrested.

On April 27th 13 year old Dedric Coleman was shot by Detective Thomas Smith after Smith confronted the teenager, who was carrying what appeared to be a semi-automatic handgun.  A foot chase ensued when Coleman disobeyed Smith’s initial order to stop.  It ended when Coleman stopped and turned toward Smith with the gun still in his hand and Smith shot Coleman in the leg and shoulder.  Whether Coleman pointed the gun directly at Smith after turning, and whether Smith heard what a witness described as Coleman’s statement that the gun was not real, are questions that remain under investigation.  The gun turned out to be BB gun virtually indistinguishable from a 9mm Beretta pistol when viewed from a distance.

The unlawful arrest of Tionne Jones falls into a familiar pattern.  All too often in Baltimore lieutenants and sergeants are involved directly or indirectly in such incidents, indicating that the challenge of changing the culture of the department is a daunting one.  Officers of the BPD must be expected to adhere to the law and to treat victims, suspects and witnesses in a civil manner even in the face of the torrent of verbal abuse to which many officers are exposed on a daily basis.  That is their professional responsibility and the only way to repair the department’s fractured relationship with the community that it serves.

On the other hand, it is not their professional responsibility to put their lives at undue risk.  Officers cannot be expected to refrain from actions that they reasonably believe are necessary to protect themselves from being shot.  The conduct of Detective Smith must be evaluated with an appreciation of the danger he faced.  Detective Smith had a duty to confront a teenage boy walking down the street with what appeared to be a 9mm pistol under the theory that it is better to prevent a murder than to solve one, and he had an absolute right to do so in a manner that reasonably reduced the risks to his own life.

In her response to the shooting Sen. Catherine Pugh hedged her support of Smith by suggesting that police “need to have the right training.”  Assuming that he was properly trained Detective Smith realized that if he waited to fire until Coleman aimed directly at him he was highly unlikely to be able to get a shot off at Coleman before Coleman took a shot at him.  Did we expect Smith to wait and hope that Coleman would not fire, or would fire and miss?  Even if he heard Coleman’s claim that the gun was not real, did we expect Smith to stake his life on the truth of the statement?

I have been a critic of discipline within the BPD and joined many others in calling for a “culture change” in the department.  On the other hand, we have to be as fair to police officers as we expect them to be to us and cannot ask them to disregard their own safety when doing their job.

April 28, 2016

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