By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun
7:58 PM EDT, November 3, 2011
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.
“The maddening thing is the tendency of departments to wait for their own scandal to identify something other departments have already dealt with,” O’Donnell said, noting similar reviews in other cities.
The commission said its work was hamstrung by several key participants’ refusal to testify, including all of the officers who fired their weapons and three supervisors, including Deputy Maj. Marc Partee, the commander on duty that night.
James “Chips” Stewart, the chair of the commission and a former police commander in Oakland, Calif., said the officers were within their rights not to testify but that their silence “unquestionably hampered our inquiry.”
“It left a lot of gaps in the information, which we needed and also the department needs, and the community needs,” Stewart said. “The use of lethal force … carries with it a huge responsibility. The consequences for these officers were enormous. It’s a terrible thing they’ve gone through.”
Herb Weiner, an attorney whose firm represents the police officers’ union, said Bealefeld ordered the officers to appear, but did not order them to testify. He said without compelling their testimony, the officers’ words could have been used against them in a criminal investigation or civil lawsuit.
“We did not think it was in their best interests, and the committee didn’t seem overly upset about that,” Weiner said.
Bealefeld said the department had already carried out some fixes, including requiring plainclothes officers — who are different from undercover officers — to wear identifying vests or jackets. Central District officers were sent to six weeks of crowd-control training, and the midnight shift was sent for additional shooting training.
The commission found that from the earliest moments of the incident, commanders were not supervising the officers who were responding to the club. Partee, who has since been transferred to the Northwest District, had ordered the club shut down due to a crowd that numbered in the hundreds, and at 1:17 a.m. put out a call over the police radio for “all available units” to respond as the situation deteriorated.
More than 30 officers from various units arrived on the scene. The commission said that not all of the officers told dispatchers of their presence, in violation of general orders, creating a “mass decentralized response” as the officers began assigning themselves to various tasks.
While the Police Department has trained officers and supervisors on how to respond to major incidents and events, it hadn’t applied those principles to crowd control outside bars and clubs.
“The breakdown of the response to the Select Lounge incident was in large part … a failure to establish incident command as mandated by the police department,” the commission wrote.
Torbit separated from his partner and entered the crowd when civilians Jazzmin Graves and Katrina Harris began hitting with their shoes a vehicle that had grazed them. Witnesses said that Graves began arguing with Torbit, and Gamble walked over to ask if she was all right. Torbit told Gamble to “Mind your own f—king business,” and Gamble hit Torbit. Eventually, Torbit fell to the ground and was choked, stomped and kicked.
“Officer Torbit was vastly outnumbered and lying on his back being beaten and kicked, with no backup officer assisting him,” the report said.
The report includes an interview with a school police officer, identified only by his last name: McLain. When he saw Torbit firing, he drew his service weapon and “took several steps back to identify the shooter. He saw the officers to the right and left of him fire their weapons, and shouted ‘No, no, no, stop shooting – that’s a plainclothes officer!’ ‘”
Another city officer, Deborah MacMillan, said that throughout the fight and the shooting, she “kept stating on the radio, ‘That’s an officer, he is one of us, stop shooting.’ ”
In the aftermath, the commission found that police failed to log photos of the crime scene and said that internal affairs investigators were kept at bay.
Two years ago, the Police Department moved to stop releasing the names of officers involved in shootings, reasoning that cases were vigorously investigated internally by homicide detectives and internal affairs, each with different objectives.
But the report found that in practice, the internal affairs unit defers to homicide detectives and waits until the criminal case is resolved — which can take months and in some cases more than a year, “delay[ing] the Department’s ability to determine what policies were violated or how it might improve its practices,” the commission wrote.
They recommend that criminal and internal investigations occur simultaneously, and said the department should activate its dormant Lethal Force Review Board to conduct reviews of police-involved shootings for training purposes.
Bealefeld said he has instructed Deputy Commissioner John Skinner to implement the panel’s recommendations.
Key recommendations from the Select Lounge panel:
•Implement a permitting program for club promoters
•Weigh the need for and use of plainclothes police officers
•Place stronger emphasis on tactics that minimize need for deadly force
•Establish regular and proactive reviews of police shootings
•Develop plan for incident response in club/bar situations
•Write policy dictating that officers not take action in crowds without backup
Source: Independent Review Board
Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun