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Mayor promises changes following shooting investigation

Video from the press conference

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld promised fast and sweeping changes in Baltimore Police Department training and policies based on the results of an external investigation into a Jan. 9 shooting that left two dead and four wounded after officers fired 42 shots in six seconds.

Officer William H. Torbit Jr. — on duty but in plainclothes — was killed by “friendly fire” during a melee outside the Select Lounge. Unarmed nightclub patron Sean Gamble, 22, also was killed. An independent review board was appointed in February to investigate the incident.

The 169-page report, released Thursday afternoon, found 20 deficiencies ranging from insufficient lethal force training and plainclothes protocols to breakdowns in the chain of command. It includes 33 recommendations for improvement, all of which Rawlings-Blake and Bealefeld said they would try to implement within 90 days.

“Commissioner Bealefeld and I made a pledge to Officer Torbit’s mother, Dolores, and father, William — and to the people of Baltimore,” Rawlings-Blake said: “To do everything possible to review the facts and circumstances of that terrible January night and to make necessary changes to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

The review was conducted by a five-member panel of law enforcement experts headed by James K. “Chips” Stewart of CNA’s Institute for Public Research.

Their report said Torbit and the four officers who shot him all acted within department policies, but made several errors in judgment that contributed to the tragedy.

Torbit, though wearing his badge around his neck, reportedly left a police vest in his vehicle, did not identify himself as a police officer and waded into an argument outside the club without proper backup.

Still, the report stated that once the fight started and Torbit was thrown to the ground and surrounded by six to eight assailants including Gamble, he was justified in firing his gun eight times. Torbit, it said, was “vastly outnumbered and lying on his back being beaten and kicked, with no backup officer assisting him.”

The report found more fault with the four officers — Harry Pawley, Toyia Williams, Latora Craig and Harry Dodge — who fired 34 shots at Torbit, striking him 21 times, while he was on the ground.

Other officers on the scene held their fire, the independent review board noted.

“The IRB does not contest the belief professed by the uniformed officers that they were acting in defense of life when they fired upon an unidentified person — who turned out to be Officer Torbit,” the report states. “However, it is notable that at least two, and possibly three other officers witnessed the shooting but did not discharge their firearms.”

One officer on the scene yelled “No, no don’t shoot — he’s a police officer,” the report says. It suggests that “contagious fire” was a factor and that officers may have suffered “tunnel vision” in the heat of the moment.

“They reported that they acted to protect the lives of civilians and their fellow officers, but shooting into a crowded parking lot in the dark is questionable and very dangerous to numerous bystanders,” the report states. “The IRB finds the claim that officers’ own lives were in jeopardy is undermined by their reports that zero shots were fired at them by Officer Torbit.”

Unanswered questions

The report also faults the four officers, and three non-shooting officers involved in the incident (including a commander and a supervisor), for refusing to answer the board’s questions on advice from their lawyers.

“Their silence has unquestionably hampered our inquiry,” the report states.

Bealefeld said Thursday that all seven are still on the force, though Pawley, Dodge, Craig and Williams have been moved into administrative positions.

Without their testimony, the report relied heavily on audio and video evidence of the incident and civilian witnesses.

Among the questions left unanswered: Who shot Gamble?

The report finds it was “likely” Torbit, but a failure of ballistics analysis made it impossible to determine. The board recommends that the police department reconsider its use of Glock pistols or consider modifying the barrels to “ensure accountability in the future.”

Overall, the report examined six broad areas and found deficiencies in all of them, including a lack of engagement with club owners; vague standards for what plainclothes officers should wear and do while responding to calls; insufficient training in the use of deadly force; breakdowns in the chain of command that made a disorganized situation even more frenetic; a confusing process for reporting officer-involved shootings and unnecessary delays in investigating them; and an adversarial relationship between officers and the public.

Baltimore lawyer J. Wyndal Gordon, who participated in a protest after State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein declined to file charges against the officers this summer, said he was pleasantly surprised by the report’s thoroughness.

“It appears based upon the work that’s been summarized that they took the time to meticulously go through the info that was available to them…,” Gordon said. “It was no rubber stamp.”

Still, Gordon said the department and the public lost out because some of the officers did not cooperate with the investigation.

“We didn’t maximize the benefit of using the investigation as a teachable moment,” Gordon said. “There’s still some unanswered questions, but it’s fair to say there were a comedy of errors that happened that night.”

The external board’s full report and the executive summary are available on the police department’s website.