Md. mayor: Scrutiny may be affecting cops' ability to act
Baltimore mayor believes nationwide protests might cause officers to hesitate in using deadly force — compromising their safety
By Justin George
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — Nationwide protests after the deaths of two unarmed black men by police in Missouri and New York might cause officers to hesitate to use deadly force for fear of becoming the "next Darren Wilson," Baltimore's mayor said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, police unions say departments across the country are battling anxiety that could compromise officers' safety. They called upon more police chiefs and elected leaders to vocally back officers, who have felt their public support erode even as they continue to do dangerous jobs protecting communities.
In the latest flash point in Baltimore, a city officer drew a Taser on a man concealing a gun who shot him Sunday night. The investigation into the shooting continues.
During a weekly news briefing Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said intense public scrutiny and four months of protests against police brutality in Baltimore may be affecting officers' ability to act at critical moments.
"A lot of officers I've heard — not just in Baltimore but nationally when I talk to other mayors — said they want to make sure that they get it right," she said. "It's understandable if they feel at greater risk. We are, for our generation, for many of those who are active on the street, in uncharted territory. There is a lot of unease."
"They don't want to be the next Darren Wilson," she said, referring to the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot an unarmed man.
Echoing comments from the mayor earlier in the day, Shane Schapiro, president of the Maryland Transportation Authority police union, said "these officers are now wondering: 'Am I going to be the next Darren Wilson?'"
"Is my family going to be ridiculed, am I going to be ridiculed for a decision I made in a split second?"
Wilson, a 28-year-old white officer, fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, an African-American, to death on Aug. 9. That led to a state grand jury inquiry and a federal investigation. Wilson resigned from the department not long after he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
In New York, Eric Garner, who was unarmed, died after being put in a chokehold and wrestled to the ground by officers, who also were cleared.
On Sunday, Baltimore police officer Andrew Groman was shot in the abdomen after a traffic stop in West Baltimore, where police say he pulled out his Taser when a passenger refused to get out of a car. As Groman fired the stun gun, police say, 19-year-old Donte Jones pulled out a concealed .357-caliber handgun and fired three times. Several officers surrounded the car but none returned fire, police said.
Groman, 27, was struck once under his bulletproof vest. He remained in stable condition at Sinai Hospital recovering from surgery, police said Wednesday.
Jones was arrested and remains in a Baltimore City jail, where he faces attempted-murder charges. His attorney has questioned the need for the traffic stop and defended Jones, saying his survival instincts may have kicked in after mistaking the Taser for a gun.
Baltimore police union president Gene Ryan said this week that he was concerned that officers might be feeling some hesitation to do their jobs because of the pressure from protests.
Police say they have not been able to interview all officers and witnesses to determine what led Groman not to draw his gun on Sunday. But Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said the agency feels confident that its officers are ready to meet any threat.
"No matter the circumstances they face, our officers are courageous, concerned about the people they serve, and committed to protecting the City of Baltimore," he said.
Chinedu Nwokeafor, 22, a Morgan State University speech communications major and activist, said even if police are feeling hesitant to act in critical moments, it doesn't lessen protesters' resolve to address police brutality and excessive uses of force that he believes has gone unchecked for years.
"It's unfortunate what happened to that cop, but it doesn't replace what a protest is supposed to do," said Nwokeafor, who has helped lead several demonstrations at Morgan. "It's supposed to disrupt the regular flow of life."
William J. Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said many police chiefs are hesitant to talk publicly about the strain their officers are under, as officers are worried they could become political footballs in the polarized political climate of today.
"They're concerned about the politics of it," he said. "Even if I did everything right, will some politician who needs to score points with the community make a case out of me and treat an officer in a manner that they otherwise would not have?"
He also said officers fear that the Department of Justice, which continues to investigate the shooting death of Brown in Missouri, is "using Ferguson as an example" to reform policing even when a grand jury decided Wilson did nothing wrong.
Jim McAbee, a former Baltimore patrolman who served 25 years until he retired in 1979, also worked during a contentious period of the 1960s when Baltimore was rocked with civil rights protests, riots and intense police scrutiny. But he said officers had more respect in his era, and he would not want to do the job now.
"I think today the police would like to do their job, but I think they're reluctant to do their job because whatever they do is going to be second-guessed," said McAbee, also executive secretary at Maryland Law Enforcement Inc., a nonprofit police organization.
On Sunday, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts addressed the tension that police believe the protests have caused, saying, "We've had marches nationwide over the fact that we have lost lives in police custody. I wonder if we'll have those same marches as officers are shot, too."
Schapiro praised the statement, and his police union thanked Batts publicly on Twitter. The union president challenged more police chiefs and other leaders to show similar support.
On Saturday in Annapolis, a National Police Wives Association member and wife of a Maryland police officer plans to lead a pro-police rally in response to the many protests against police brutality that have taken place.
"We have faith that they make the right choices when placed in high-stress situations," organizer Jessica Alvear of Arnold said.
Copyright 2014 The Baltimore Sun