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Torbit shooting investigation is complete

It has been nearly 10 months since Baltimore Police Officer William H. Torbit Jr. and 22-year-old Sean Gamble were killed when 41 bullets ripped through the early-morning darkness outside the Select Lounge nightclub. Now, the city may find out more about how and why it happened.

The chairman of a commission appointed to investigate the Jan. 9 shooting of Torbit by fellow police officers said the report will go public at noon Thursday.

“The report has just been completed and it’s been delivered to mayor and the police commissioner,” James K. “Chips” Stewart said. “I believe that on Thursday they will release it to the press.”

Stewart said the news conference will be at the Baltimore Police Department and he will be there, accompanied by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. He will provide executive summaries of the report and the full version will be available online.

Stewart said he and the other four members of the commission have agreed not to comment on the report’s contents until after the press conference.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake also declined to comment on the commission’s findings Wednesday.

“We’ll be making an announcement about that shortly,” Ryan O’Doherty said.

Baltimore Police spokesman Steve Sharkey said Bealefeld would not comment until after the media event.

Torbit, 33, was on duty but in plainclothes when he responded to a call outside Select Lounge at 415 N. Paca St. When he tried to diffuse an argument near the parking lot, a fight ensued and he ended up on the ground surrounded by several assailants, including Gamble.

Torbit reportedly drew his weapon as four other officers rushed to the scene and, during the five to 10 frantic seconds that followed, Gamble and Torbit were both shot to death.

Police investigators said Torbit shot Gamble and the other officers fired on him to defend themselves and others, not knowing Torbit was one of them. Gamble was unarmed.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein announced in August that he would not file charges against the officers, saying there was no evidence of criminal action on their part.

But Torbit, who was reportedly wearing his badge around his neck, was shot 21 times at close range, causing family members and community activists to question whether the officers should have been able to identify him and whether they used excessive force.

The mayor and the police department released video of the shooting from Citiwatch surveillance cameras in August. After watching the video, Torbit’s sister told the local ABC affiliate her family did not believe Torbit fired his weapon.

Baltimore lawyer J. Wyndal Gordon, who attended a protest of Bernstein’s decision not to prosecute, said he hoped the commission’s report would provide more answers.

“Why Officer Torbit’s blood was shed on the streets of Baltimore city that evening,” Gordon said. “That’s what I want to know. … Why, and who’s responsible and who’s to be held accountable.”

Gordon called the shooting a “dark time” for the city, and said it still affects him.

“I don’t socialize as much as I used to in Baltimore City because it frightens me …,” he said. “If an officer can get shot in the open, who’s there to protect me?”

Rawlings-Blake appointed Stewart’s commission at the end of February to review the police department’s investigation of the shooting and make recommendations on how to prevent such “friendly fire” incidents.

Stewart, formerly of the Oakland (Calif.) Police Department, is a senior fellow at CNA’s Institute for Public Research in Virginia. The panel also includes former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, Johns Hopkins University Division of Public Safety Leadership faculty member Darrel Stephens, Police Foundation President Hubert Williams, and George Mason University criminology professor Cynthia Lum, a former Baltimore Police detective.

The commission members volunteered to serve, but the city also authorized $75,000 to reimburse them for incurred expenses and to pay for support staff.