DA: Pa. police BB shooting "stupid,' not criminal

By Manuel Gamiz Jr. Of The Morning Call
Copyright 2006 The Morning Call, Inc.

Calling the shooting an accident and "a stupid act," Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin said Tuesday no charges will be filed against a former Allentown police lieutenant who shot another officer with a toy handgun inside headquarters.

Thomas R. Houck wounded officer Jason M. Krasley in the arm with a plastic soft-air BB gun May 13 near the complaint desk, Martin said.

The gun, which Krasley took from a juvenile earlier that day, uses plastic BBs, Martin said. Houck pointed it toward Krasley and pulled the trigger, firing a BB that gave Krasley a "mosquito bite-like welt," Martin said. Krasley refused medical care and kept working his shift.

Houck retired from the force six days later.

"It is a toy," Martin said. "It was clearly a stupid act and one which violates common sense as applied to weapons safety. However, it was not a criminal act."

Houck was suspended with pay while police conducted an internal investigation -- the third time in 15 months that Lehigh Valley police departments have had to investigate gun handling inside their headquarters.

In October, a Bethlehem police captain reportedly held a loaded .40-caliber Glock handgun to the head of another officer. And in March 2005, Easton officer Jesse Sollman died after officer Matthew Renninger shot him with a .40-caliber pistol in a gun-cleaning room.

Houck's retirement on May 19 ended a 25-year career during which he won a commendation for helping arrest a suspect in a homicide and was cleared of failing to help a woman in jail with a head injury. More recently, he joined other officers in suing the city over pay and benefits.

Martin said Houck's retirement did not influence his decision not to charge him with a criminal offense. Martin and Police Chief Roger MacLean also insisted they did not ask or force Houck to retire.

Houck would not talk to a reporter who came to his Allentown home.

The toy gun shooting happened in the complaint area, a busy office behind a glass window where officers take reports from the public and gather between shifts. Three other officers were present during the shooting, Martin said.

Martin said Krasley, who has been with the Allentown department for more than two years, had just taken into custody a juvenile who had allegedly made threats with the toy gun. Krasley brought the gun with him when he went into the complaint area to take a phone call from an officer in the Juvenile Division, Martin said.

Krasley removed the gun's plastic magazine, which contained the plastic BBs, and laid both the gun and magazine on a desk, Martin said. While Krasley was on the phone, Houck examined the gun. He looked into the barrel, pulled back the slide and commented on how real the toy appeared, Martin said.

Standing 1 to 2 feet from Krasley at 7:51 p.m., Houck held the gun at waist level with the muzzle pointed in Krasley's direction, Martin said. The gun went off, and a plastic BB hit Krasley in the right forearm and bounced into a bin on a desk. Krasley told the person on the phone, "My lieutenant just shot me," Martin said.

Witnesses heard Houck say, "I thought I cleared the gun. You saw me clear the gun. I did not know it was loaded," Martin said. "I am sorry, I thought it was clear. You know that I did not shoot you intentionally," Houck told Krasley, who responded "Yes, Lieutenant, I understand that."

The investigation ended last Wednesday and the results sent to Martin and MacLean for review. Work on the case was slowed because Martin was on vacation and because of the Memorial Day holiday.

Martin said the four charges that might be considered are simple assault, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and harassment, but the case did not meet any of the standards for those charges.

Also, Martin did not want to compare the toy gun shooting to what happened in Bethlehem and Easton.

"They are similar in that they involved police officers and were in police headquarters," he said. "But in those cases they are dealing with real, and not toy, guns capable of causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury and even death. That is not the case here."

Still, MacLean said, "We take the handling of weapons very seriously. It does not matter what type of weapon."

Clearing up earlier reports, Martin said the toy gun did not use compressed air or CO2 cartridges as a propellant. The toy, which Martin displayed during a news conference in the county courthouse, uses plastic 6 mm BBs and isn't intended for metal BBs.

The plastic projectiles are expelled from the magazine into the chamber with a spring-loaded mechanism operated by the slide action of the gun, he said.

Houck, who served in the Air Force for four years, began his career as a patrol officer in 1981. He and another officer won a commendation for nabbing an armed man wanted in connection with a Bethlehem homicide in 1986.

Two years later, he was accused of using excessive force during a struggle with a drunk at a christening party. Witnesses said Houck beat the man on the head with a flashlight. An internal police investigation cleared him.

He was promoted to sergeant in 1991, and in 1994, a Lehigh County jury cleared him and another officer of wrongdoing after a local woman filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging she did not get proper medical attention when she was in jail with a fractured skull in 1988.

Houck was promoted to lieutenant in July 1997, but "resigned his lieutenancy" less than a year later due to an undisclosed personnel matter and went back to the rank of sergeant. He subsequently regained his lieutenant position.

In July, Houck and nine other officers sued the city, claiming they'd been denied pay raises and benefits equal to officers in the union. A Lehigh County judge threw out the suit, but the officers have appealed to Commonwealth Court.

The annual base pay for an Allentown police lieutenant is $68,000, but it was unclear what type of retirement package he would receive because he just filed his retirement papers, said Joe McDermott, a spokesman for Mayor Ed Pawlowski. 

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