Race a Factor in Friendly Fire Police Shooting?

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After helping to subdue the late-night crowd in front of Select Lounge in January, Officer William H. Torbit Jr. was gunned down by fellow officers in a flurry of bullets, 12 of which penetrated his body.

After months of delayed, hush-hush investigations and speculation, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Greg Bernstein officially shed some light on the case Aug. 4.

Torbit, 33, was on duty but dressed in plainclothes when the officers fired, and he had been shooting at a patron, who had attacked him – Sean Gamble.

Another announcement – the four city officers who shot Torbit will not face criminal charges. “All officers acted reasonably in a highly chaotic situation, in which they had a reasonable belief that they and other civilians in the area were in imminent fear of substantial bodily harm or death,” Bernstein said at a press conference.

Torbit was Black, and according to a recent study, officers of color are more likely to succumb to friendly fire than White officers. Between 1994 and 2009, 10 of the 14 U.S. officers killed by other officers were minorities. But the last time an off-duty White police officer was killed by his colleagues was in 1982. These statistics were revealed in a 2009 New York state, independent study that examined the role race plays in an officer’s decision to open fire. New York Gov. David A. Paterson commissioned the study after two Black officers were consecutively killed by friendly fire in his state in 2008 and 2009.

In a January 2008 incident similar to Torbit’s, Officer Christopher Ridley, who was Black and not in uniform, was shot and killed by officers in White Plains, N.Y., after they saw him breaking up a physical altercation with his gun drawn.

And in May 2009, Officer Omar Edwards, a Black man, was chasing a car thief in Harlem with his gun in hand and in plainclothes when fellow officers shot and killed him. “It is something we are deeply concerned about,” said Lt. Joseph Akers of the National Organization of Black Law Executives (NOBLE). "This has been a concern since Black officers were placed in police departments and especially in off-duty investigative situations.”

He said oftentimes, “undercover officers are so good at looking like others in the community that it’s hard for other officers to tell.”

But according to the New York state report, the issue may go beyond an officer’s adept blending ability. It reports that officers may subconsciously believe a minority is more likely to be the criminal in question. “We are persuaded by evidence that both police officers and members of the general public display unconscious biases that lead them to be quicker to ‘shoot’ images of armed black people than of armed white people in computer?based simulations testing shoot/don’t?shoot decision?making,” the report reads.

The study recommends that police departments develop statewide and nationwide protocols on how and when off-duty or plainclothes officers should take police action. They also suggest that departments enforce “interactive, scenario-based training” to ease unconscious bias among new recruits and veteran officers.

Akers agrees that officers should use universal signals, wear certain colors or use other mechanisms to alert other law enforcement personnel of their presence.

He has personally experienced mistaken identity. Donning plainclothes, he captured a robber, but officers who came to assist immediately thought he was the suspect. But Akers is not quick to blame the officers that killed Torbit.

“It’s a really tough call and if you haven’t experienced this before – I’m not saying they were correct; I just know I’ve been in these situations myself and it can be so chaotic,” he said. “We are trained to use our firearm to protect ourselves or another person from attack.”