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Home  >  Topics  >  Less Lethal

May 17, 2006
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Md. shooting stirs calls for less lethal weapons

ANNIE LINSKEY, PHILLIP MCGOWAN AND LAURA BARNHARDT, SUN REPORTERS

Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company

Anne Arundel County police acknowledged yesterday that none of the department's three mental health units was on the scene Sunday when officers surrounded and fatally shot a mentally ill man wielding scissors after 30 minutes of negotiations failed to persuade him to drop his weapon.

Also yesterday, two County Council members called on the Police Department to expedite plans to equip patrol officers with nonlethal weapons such as stun guns or beanbag shotguns, as the department's chief promised to review its policies in such cases.

Justin James Fisher, 18, of Glen Burnie was shot five times before dawn Sunday by officers after his mother called police to report that he was threatening himself and his girlfriend, whose high school prom he had attended with her in Baltimore on Saturday night.

Officers surrounded Fisher after stopping his vehicle on Arbutus Road in Pasadena and spent a half-hour trying to get him to drop the 9-inch scissors. When he charged at the officers, four of them opened fire as his mother was nearby, police said.

The Mother's Day shooting of Fisher, a freshman at Salisbury University, has opened a debate over whether the Anne Arundel police have adequate nonlethal weaponry. The department has been looking into arming patrol officers with Taser stun guns and beanbag shotguns.

County Council members Pamela G. Beidle and Ronald C. Dillon Jr. pointed to the shooting of Fisher as an ideal situation to employ a Taser, which temporarily paralyzes a person with an electric shock of 50,000 volts.

"In this case, the Taser would have been appropriate," Beidle said.

Michael Lyman, a professor of criminal justice at Columbia College of Missouri who has been an expert witness in litigation involving police interactions with the mentally ill, said the officers should have used a Taser or beanbag rounds.

"A Taser would have been an ideal intermediate weapon in this situation," he said. "There's really no excuse in 2006 for a modern law enforcement organization not to have available intermediate weapons for these types of situations."

According to regulations set by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, mental health professionals should be called in to any situation where police are dealing with the mentally disturbed, Lyman said.

When dealing with someone who is known to be mentally ill, police should also "de-escalate rather than take steps to escalate the situation," he said, citing the regulations. "Police create an environment when deadly force was the only option."

At a news conference, Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan called Fisher's death "tragic" and said he did not know whether a mental health unit - a team of two professionals who respond at the request of police to domestic violence, suicidal suspects and standoffs - had been called. None of the three units was on duty.

Shanahan said the department is re-examining its policies with regard to nonlethal weapons in the wake of the third shooting in two weeks involving county police officers.

"We have a heightened sense of urgency now," Shanahan said. "I don't want to see this again if we can prevent it."

Only a select number of Anne Arundel tactical officers now carry shotguns with beanbag rounds, which are more widely issued in Howard and Baltimore counties. Last week, Shanahan approved a pilot program for their use. Anne Arundel officers do not use Tasers, though the county council recently authorized their use.

The chief defended the officers' decision to use lethal force rather than pepper spray or their batons - the two nonlethal weapons issued to county police officers. While stressing that the investigation is in the preliminary phases, Shanahan said he believed the officers made the right call. An officer may use lethal force if he "reasonably believes that the action is in defense of human life, including the officer's own life," according to department rules.

Daniel Held, the lawyer for Fisher's family, said: "Right now the only comment that we have is that they're in shock and they are in seclusion."

Shanahan gave this account:

Police received a 911 call at 4:24 a.m. Sunday from Fisher's mother, whom police have declined to identify. She told police that her son was at his girlfriend's house in Riviera Beach and might have stabbed her. She also said Fisher, described by police as 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, has a history of "psychotic episodes" and she was unsure whether he was taking his prescribed medications.

Within minutes of the call, police found Fisher driving a Honda Accord near the house. A patrol officer stopped the car and Fisher got out with a pair of scissors.

One witness of the encounter, John Stewart, said that after Fisher was pulled over, he said, "All I want to do is see my mother and father and wish my mother a happy Mother's Day and tell my brother goodbye."

For the next 35 minutes, Sgt. Mike Richardson, a 15-year veteran with the force, negotiated with Fisher, repeatedly asking him to put down the scissors, police said.

Richardson stood away from a group of officers that formed a perimeter. County officers remained 21 feet away from Fisher, as they are instructed when they are confronted with people threatening them with knives and other sharp objects.

Stewart said Fisher got into a "middle linebacker stance" and placed the scissors to his neck.

At some point, Shanahan said, Fisher asked his family to come to the scene. Shanahan said the mother and "several family members" came to the road and stood behind a line of four police officers.

Shanahan said Fisher "displayed aggression, flexing muscles and growling, so to speak," and then, clutching the scissors with both arms stretched out in front of him, "charged" at the officers.

Four officers fired at Fisher; he was pronounced dead at Baltimore Washington Medical Center. Officers Daniel De Lorenzo, Edward Hildebrand, Michael Flaig and Scott Clinton have been placed on administrative leave pending an internal review.

On May 2, county police wounded an allegedly suicidal suspect who was brandishing a rifle. Two days later, a county detective shot a man he was trying to arrest in South Baltimore. Police said the man was trying to run over the detective.

A year ago, a rookie police officer fatally shot a naked, unarmed man who charged at him. The man had fired shots earlier and was described by police as delusional. The officer was cleared.

Edward Mamet, a retired New York police captain, said police there try to "isolate" and "contain" emotionally disturbed people into smaller spaces until units with specialized equipment, from water bombs to Tasers, arrive.

And, while officers have no duty to retreat, Mamet said, "There's nothing wrong with backing up."

Training officers on scenarios involving both mentally ill suspects and situations where more than one officer will be responding would benefit police, said Thomas Aveni, co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council.

But he warned against jumping to conclusions about police use of deadly force. If society were to demand that officers fight suspects on an even level - fist with fist, knife with knife, for example, Aveni said, "It'd be a pretty ugly world."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com phillip.mcgowan@baltsun.com laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Bradley Olson contributed to this article.

Officer-related shootings

Jurisdiction ............................. 2005 ............................ 2006

Anne Arundel/Annapolis .... 1 (fatal) ................. 4 (2 fatal)

Baltimore City *** ............... 2 fatal .................... 1 fatal

Baltimore County ............ 6 (2 fatal) ...................... 2

Carroll County** ................... 1 ............................. 1

Harford County* .................... 0 .............................. 0

Howard County ................. 1 (fatal) ....................... 1

* Sheriff's office only

** Sheriff's office and state police

*** City unable to provide figures for nonfatal shootings

Sources: Area police departments, Sun reports 

Full story: Md. shooting stirs calls for less lethal weapons






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