Shoot or don’t shoot. That is the question police officers have to face when they are confronted by a person with a gun. They usually have less than one second to make the decision. If they make the wrong choice, it could cost them their lives. A Washington, D.C. police officer was faced with that choice one cold February evening in 1995. He and his partner were barely 10 minutes into their shift. They were on their way to serve a subpoena in Southeast Washington. But, as they drove to the crest of a hill, they spotted a man holding a gun. They turned on their flashing lights and raced to the scene up ahead. Slamming on the brakes, the officer jumped out of his car and assumed a shooter’s stance with legs spread apart. With both hands, he trained his service weapon on the man with the gun, who was now about 20 feet in front of him. He had his back to the officer and was aiming his weapon at two men struggling in the street near a taxicab. The officer identified himself and shouted at the gunman to drop his weapon. The man instinctively turned to see who was giving the order. When he turned toward the officer, so did his gun. Fearing for his life, the officer fired and shot the man twice. The officer rushed to his car radio, reported the shooting and called for an ambulance. His partner ran to the shooting victim to check his condition. When he pulled open the man’s jacket, he found something he hadn’t expected. There was a police badge clipped to the man’s belt. He was an off-duty D.C. police officer. His name was James McGee. The investigation found that Officer McGee was off-duty and in street clothes when he stumbled upon two men robbing a cab driver at gunpoint. He was trying to help the cab driver and make an arrest when the other officers drove up. It was simply a horrible case of mistaken identity. Officer McGee is one of nearly 200 law enforcement professionals who have been killed in what is commonly referred to as “friendly fire” incidents. Some, like Officer McGee, were the tragic victims of mistaken identity. But many others simply succumbed to the inherent dangers of the job. On March 12, 1925, Michigan State Trooper William Martz was accidentally shot and killed when a colleague’s gun accidentally discharged. Just two months later, Toledo (OH) Patrolman Walter Mullin was shot by his partner while chasing down a prowler. In 1984, U.S. Capitol Police Sergeant Christopher S. Eney was accidentally shot and killed during a training exercise that went terribly awry. The most recent case involved a Providence (RI) police officer named Cornel Young Jr. According to newspaper accounts, Officer Young was off duty and picking up a steak sandwich at an all-night diner around 1:40 a.m. on January 28 when a fight broke out in the parking lot. One of the participants had pulled a gun. As other officers arrived on the scene in response to the disturbance, Officer Young, who was not in uniform, drew his weapon and went into the parking lot to assist his colleagues. His chief later described what Officer Young did as “an act of heroism.” But, in the chaos that followed, Officer Young was mistaken for a second armed suspect who did not drop his weapon when ordered to by police. Sensing that he posed an imminent threat to the other officers on the scene, he was shot and killed. Officer Young was an African-American officer and the officers who shot him were not. As a result, some have charged that a form of racial profiling might have been responsible for his death, and for other similar incidents involving black officers being killed by a white colleague. Officer McGee’s case falls into this category, as does another recent case that resulted in the off-duty shooting death of Washington, D.C. Police Officer Thomas Hamlette Jr. However, a closer look at the files of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial suggests that friendly fire does not discriminate—officers of all color appear to be at risk. A look at the numbers tells us that that there have been 180 cases of police officers being killed by a colleague between the first such incident in 1893 and Officer Young’s death in January. Of that total, 32 of the cases involved the accidental discharge of a firearm, 24 were caught in crossfire with criminal suspects or were hit by stray bullets, and 14 were killed accidentally during training exercises. In 82 of the cases, there is simply not enough information to determine which of these classifications might apply. However, it is clear that 28 of the friendly fire deaths resulted from a case of mistaken identity—the officer who died was considered a criminal suspect posing an imminent danger. In seven of those cases the victim officer was African-American; in eight of the cases the victim officer was Caucasian; and in 13 cases the victim officer’s race is unknown. The most recent case of mistaken identity involving a white officer occurred on February 10, 1995. Roseville (CA) Officer Mark White was out of uniform and ready to leave for the day when a man intent on committing suicide walked into police headquarters and pulled a gun on the counter clerk. In the confusion that followed, Officer White was mistaken for the intruder and killed by a fellow officer. In a similar case, Robin Ahrens, a white female FBI special agent was accidentally shot and killed by fellow agents in 1985 when she was mistaken for the armed associate of a wanted fugitive. Certainly one of the most tragic cases of mistaken identity occurred on March 2, 1929, when two Jersey City (NJ) patrolmen were shot and killed. In what was reported to be “a frantic hunt for bandits” who had staged four robberies in as many nights, Jersey City Police Commissioner John Beggans had placed officers in plain clothes all over the city. One of those officers, John J. Shanahan, 27, was working the robbery detail on that fateful Saturday night when he spotted four youths he thought were acting suspiciously. He briefly questioned the youths, but when he started to walk with them toward a street corner to be picked up by a patrol wagon, they attempted to flee. Officer Shanahan fired a warning shot over their heads. Hearing the shot, another plainclothes officer, Walter O’Neill, pulled his service weapon and ran to investigate. The next shot fired by Officer Shanahan struck Officer O’Neill in the kidneys. It is unclear whether Officer Shanahan perceived his police colleague to be a threat, or if Officer O’Neill simply stepped into the line of fire at the worst possible moment. Either way, Officer O’Neill fell to the ground mortally wounded. The tragedy was compounded when a third police officer, Joseph Ihms, responded to the chaotic scene. One of the fleeing youths, who later said he thought he was being chased by a bandit, not the police, yelled out a warning to Patrolman Ihms. Pointing to Patrolman Shanahan, he said, “Look out for that man. He’s got a gun.” Patrolman Ihms fired a warning shot over his colleague’s head, but there was no surrender. Patrolman Ihms then shot to kill, hitting Patrolman Shanahan in the shoulder and knocking him to the ground. Patrolman Ihms pounced on his shooting victim, still not recognizing him as a fellow officer. When Patrolman Shanahan frantically tried to retrieve his revolver, Patrolman Ihms shot him again, this time through the hand. Only then did Patrolman Shanahan cry out, “I’m a police officer.” It was too late. Patrolmen O’Neill and Shanahan were rushed to the hospital where they both died a short while later. # # #This article originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of AMERICAN POLICE BEAT, a national law enforcement publication. It appears here with permission of the author and AMERICAN POLICE BEAT.

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