By Colleen Long
NEW YORK — It's a police officer's nightmare scenario: Confronting someone who appears to be an armed suspect and opening fire, only to discover that person was actually an officer not in uniform.
It's the kind of mistake that haunts a department, opens it to scrutiny, and dominates headlines. While the phenomenon has happened around the country, New York is home to several cases in the past few years.
But friendly fire incidents with police are fairly rare, according to federal statistics, likely a testament to procedures in place in police departments around the country.
"There's an awareness by police departments that this is a very high risk," Jim Cohen, a professor of criminal law at Fordham Law School, said Saturday. "The rules are pounded into these officers in training, and continued training, using their guns when other cops are around."
Late Thursday, Officer Omar J. Edwards, 25, was shot by a fellow officer on a Harlem street while in street clothes. He had just finished his shift, and had his service weapon out, chasing a man who had broken into his car, police said. Three plainclothes officers on routine patrol arrived at the scene and yelled for the two to stop, police said. One officer, Andrew Dunton, opened fire and hit Edwards three times as he turned toward them with his service weapon. It wasn't until medical workers were on scene that it was determined he was a police officer.
Now, investigators are working to determine whether anyone was at fault. Witnesses are being re-interviewed and many questions remain, specifically whether Edwards identified himself as an officer, and whether Dunton's split-second judgment to fire was against department guidelines. The district attorney will likely convene a grand jury to decide whether to file charges against Dunton, as is practice for police-involved shootings. After, he will be interviewed by police. Dunton's attorney had no comment.
But NYPD procedure for officer confrontation places the responsibility on the out-of-uniform officers. They are instructed to drop their weapon, stay still and to obey all directions from the uniformed officers to defuse the tense situation.
In the police academy, officers get weeks of intense training on what they call confrontations with role playing, as well as lectures on the subject. Training continues on the subject when officers leave the academy. After the shooting Thursday, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly switched on-the-job training for officers from courtroom testimony to confronting officers for the month of June.
Procedures on the topic were also recently revamped after the shooting death of Sean Bell, an unarmed man killed on his wedding night in a hail of 50 police bullets.
"We have seen fatal police-involved shootings plummet in recent decades - even as the size of the NYPD increased - because of training and disciplined use of force," said Paul Browne, the New York Police Department's deputy commissioner for public information.
"Department guidelines are neat and clean on paper, not so in the split-second reality of an armed confrontation. Our training is designed to help officers safely navigate through the hazards of the real thing."
According to statistics by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, about 22 officers have been killed in accidental shootings in the past decade. The figure includes officers caught in crossfire, mistaken for a suspect and firearm mishaps. It varies from year to year to between one and four officers killed around the country, and doesn't include those injured who survived. But, it's still staggeringly low given the tense and confusing circumstances officers regularly face. The nation's largest police department has about 34,000 officers.
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"I think it goes back to context," Cohen said. "You have in law enforcement, which is perhaps different than military, a serious emphasis placed on not killing fellow officers. And that training is universal."