… Confrontations between plainclothes officers and uniformed counterparts common across country, study says …
By Peter Hermann, Justin Fenton and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun
5:43 PM EST, January 15, 2011
Last weekend’s fatal shooting of a plainclothes Baltimore police officer — by colleagues who mistook him for an assailant — has taught a stunned force the same hard lesson learned by other agencies whose officers made similar deadly mistakes.
In 27 cases across the country since 1980 in which police officers were mistakenly killed by other officers, all but one involved a victim who was not in uniform. Among them was last Sunday’s shooting of Officer William H. Torbit Jr., an eight-year veteran of the Baltimore police force who was killed by fellow officers while trying to break up a rowdy crowd outside a club.
In most cases, police in other cities responded to the tragedies by ordering plainclothes officers back into uniform — as Baltimore did as an interim fix while reviews are under way — or to wear color-coded bandanas or jackets. Most launched investigations aimed not only at determining whether the shootings broke any laws, but also at instituting reforms.
And they often bore another similarity to the Torbit killing: Typically, the victim was black.
A commission appointed by Gov. David Paterson in New York after two off-duty officers were killed by friendly fire in 2009 came to a startling conclusion: While fatalities are rare, tense encounters between uniformed and plainclothes officers are routine in cities around the nation.
“We found that fatal police-on-police shootings are merely the tip of the iceberg of confrontations between on-duty police officers (usually in uniform) and their off-duty, plainclothes, or undercover counterparts,” the report issued last May says. “These confrontations occur every day, and while most are defused without injury, each contains the seed of a tragedy.”
The New York report’s examination of three decades of police-on-police shootings found a “disturbing trend” of minority officers being mistaken for criminals, especially when they have their guns drawn and are interacting with suspected criminals.
“In almost every case of police-on-police shootings, it almost always involves an officer [out of uniform] with a gun drawn,” said Christopher Stone, a professor of criminal justice at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who chaired the commission. “Research with officers of every race shows that you’re faster to make the judgment that a black man with a gun in plainclothes is a criminal, not a police officer.”
The issue of race has yet to be publicly raised in Baltimore; Torbit was black and of the four officers who shot him, two are black and two are white.
Police shootings in other cities have prompted much soul-searching and implementation of new policies, though the officers who fired their weapons have rarely been charged, with grand juries rejecting charges or inquiries clearing officers of criminal wrongdoing.
The Select Lounge shooting in Baltimore involved not only the death of an officer but the killing of an unarmed civilian, 22-year-old Sean Gamble. Already, police commanders have ordered that all officers working in operational roles must wear uniforms or vests or jackets, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has pledged an outside review, drawing criticism from the city police union.
“The police investigation and the outside review will help us understand exactly what happened and help us learn from it and make sure that nothing like it happens again,” the mayor said in a statement Wednesday. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the department must “emerge better.”
Bealefeld has made training a hallmark of his tenure, sending entire shifts of officers to a 30-day program in which they participate in “active shooter” training and interact with the community. Police-involved shootings fell from 33 in 2007 to 10 last year.
The New York commission made several recommendations for preventing friendly-fire incidents, including interactive-scenario-based training similar to that used in Bealefeld’s program. But the panel also called for better testing and training for unconscious racial bias; focused training on issues of race and diversity; and common protocols across departments for how to respond to incidents. It also called for increased transparency from prosecutors and police as they investigate shootings.
Some departments have also begun testing new recruits for racial bias before and after their training, and continuing through the early stages of their police careers. Stone said the goal is to stop the quick, racial stereotyping someone makes when seeing a black man with a gun. An extra split-second of thought, even under tremendous pressure, could help avoid some of these shootings, he said.
Baltimore has learned some of these lessons before.
In 1984, a police officer shot at and grazed a plainclothes detective in a West Baltimore alley during a call for a drug transaction. City police at the time ordered officers in civilian clothes to wear raid jackets, though the directive ended quietly.
The officers’ boss at the time was Sgt. Terrency McLarney, who told The Sun in 1984 that “it’s just fortunate that no one was killed” and “we’re probably lucky it doesn’t happen more often.” McLarney is now a major in charge of the department’s homicide division and is heading the investigation into Torbit’s killing.
The last fatal police-on-police shooting in Baltimore occurred in 1926 when a patrolman was shot inside a dark Mount Washington church by two undercover officers. The pair had been detailed to investigate a series of thefts from a poorbox at the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, and opened fire when they saw the suspect. Patrolman Henry Sudmeier was in the area and responded to the shots. When he shined his flashlight, the officers mistook him for the thief and shot him.
Sudmeier survived, paralyzed from the waist down, but succumbed to his injuries eight years later.
While police say there have been close calls, no other officers in Baltimore have been killed in a mistaken-identity situation.
Torbit, a plainclothes officer working in the Central District, responded to assist officers dealing with an unruly crowd. Witnesses told The Sun that Torbit was swallowed up by the crowd and was being attacked, and police believe Torbit fired his weapon as many as eight times at Gamble, fatally striking him in the chest.
At least two officers responded to the gunfire, and police say five officers in all — including Torbit — fired 41 rounds. One source who viewed a surveillance video said the entire incident transpired in a span of about 15 seconds.
The actions of the officers who fired are being scrutinized, but Stone said Torbit’s decision to fire must be examined as well.
“These things happen in just a matter of seconds,” Stone said. “Almost always there are mistakes made on every side. It’s very hard to talk about mistakes made by someone who was killed in a tragedy like this, but we have to look at protocols on every side.”
For now, Baltimore’s shift to put plainclothes officers in uniform or jackets is temporary. Across the country, fatal shootings of police have exposed gaps in protocols and led to changes. After a series of shootings of off-duty officers in the past decade, some departments began scaling back their policies of requiring officers to carry their weapons while off the clock.
• Providence, R.I., police made it optional for off-duty officers to carry weapons after a police sergeant was killed in 2000 while trying to break up a fight. The officer’s family, who unsuccessfully sought $20 million in a civil rights lawsuit, said the officer who shot him was inadequately trained to recognize off-duty or plainclothes officers.
•In 2005, an undercover University of Central Florida campus police officer, Mario Roberto Jenkins, was shot by an Orlando police officer three times in the back when he pulled a gun on two men who ran from him during a sting operation at a college football game to curb underage drinking.
State investigators released a report that showed Jenkins had no radio to call for help, and no pepper spray, Taser or baton to use instead of a gun. UCF police, Orlando police and the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco did not coordinate before the game to allow officers to meet one another. The incident led to changes in UCF game-day police operations, including a shift away from the use of plainclothes officers.
•A plainclothes officer in Norfolk, Va., Seneca Darden, was fatally shot by a uniformed officer in the chaotic aftermath of a double shooting at a housing complex in 2006. Darden was shot six times by Officer Gordon Barry, who came upon Darden while he was pointing his service weapon at a highly agitated civilian.
A probe launched by Virginia State Police the next day eventually cleared Barry, finding that he feared for his safety and that he had reportedly told Darden eight times to drop his weapon.
Norfolk police still use plainclothes details, but now those officers are supposed to wear a raid jacket emblazoned with “police” before venturing into hostile situations, said Norfolk police spokesman Officer Chris Amos. He said it’s also drilled into plainclothes officers that they shouldn’t assume that uniformed police will realize they are officers.
“In 99 out of 100 situations,” Amos said, “there is ample time for somebody to throw on a raid jacket before they step into the fray, and there will be absolutely no question — everybody will know.”
Edward T. Norris, a former Baltimore police commissioner and New York police commander, said that in New York the department used a “color of the day” to identify nonuniformed officers. It changed every day at 7 a.m., and beat officers were required to write it down in their notebooks at the start of each shift. Plainclothes and undercover officers were required to display it or wave it in situations in which uniformed officers were responding.
A Baltimore police supervisor said having officers wear raid jackets is a good idea, but says the city department’s protocols have worked well in the past.
“When plainclothes men come onto the scene of a hot situation, we tell them, ‘Advise dispatch there will be plainclothesmen in the area,'” said the supervisor, who asked that he not be identified because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter. “That situation, what happened there, how it went down, is unbelievable.”
Said Norris: “When you’re in plainclothes, in the nighttime and in the middle of a crowd, there are so many variables. A lot of guys on the street, they still don’t understand this. It’s going to take a while to get over this.”
Though police have formally released few details about Torbit’s shooting pending an investigation that could take weeks — or longer, if the findings are withheld pending the outside review — sources familiar with the case say it appears to have been a “reactive shooting” in response to someone firing a gun, and not necessarily provoked by race.
But research suggests that even in otherwise explainable cases of misidentification, officers “share the same unconscious racial biases found among the general public,” the New York report concluded. It noted studies involving computer-based shooter simulations in which officers, black and white, were quicker to fire at images of armed black people.
The New York commission held public hearings, conducted interviews and submitted questionnaires to hundreds of officers. Harvard’s Stone said they found that undercover or plainclothes black officers worry almost every day about being mistaken for criminals by their colleagues.
Officials found that nearly one in six undercover officers in New York had been mistaken for a criminal by a colleague and had come face to face with a loaded gun.
James Harlee, a 53-year-old retired Baltimore police narcotics detective, said he had several close calls with other police officers thinking he was a criminal. He described an incident early in his career during which he tried to assist an officer being beaten by a suspect only to be perceived as a criminal himself.
“The guy was getting the best of the cop,” said Harlee, who is African-American. “I grabbed the guy and threw him off. Two of the regular beat cops came up, they didn’t know me, and one hit me with a nightstick.” He said he was hit once in the side before the officer he helped shouted that Harlee was a cop.
“The officer who hit me thought I was the bad guy,” Harlee said.
Harlee said such encounters were on his mind, and the minds of other plainclothes detectives, all the time. He frequently wore jackets with “police” on the back or his badge dangling from a chain around his neck.
He avoided responding to large-scale disturbances and other big crime scenes, or he’d go but stay back until he could talk to a supervisor and make his presence known. “Depending on the situation, cops hit first and ask questions second,” the retired officer said. “That was always on my mind.”
Harlee, who retired six years ago and now works with children at an athletics league center in Harford County, said he doesn’t believe race is part of the issue, though he said he and fellow black officers talked often about being jacked up by colleagues. He said every time he was mistaken for a criminal, the officer was white.
“Whenever a cop pulled up on me, I’m thinking that he’s thinking I’m the bad guy,” Harlee said. “But I think it’s more of a police issue than a race issue. People like to make it a race issue. But we work in a city that’s 70 percent black. If we encounter a bad guy with a gun, it’s going to be a black guy with a gun.”
In 25 years as a city officer, Harlee said, he never arrested a white man with a firearm. He said it’s natural for an officer of any color, upon seeing a black man with a gun in Baltimore, “to assume he’s a bad guy.”
Irvin Barley, a retired Baltimore homicide detective who worked plainclothes, also played down the racial aspect: “Anyone brandishing a handgun is going to cause an officer’s hair to stand up on their head. No matter what race, you see a handgun, and you don’t know what’s going on, you fear for your safety or the safety of someone else.”
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he believes that with better policies in place, a shooting like Torbit’s can be avoided.
“We should at least be able to identify our own,” he said.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun