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Few of Baltimore police shooting victims this year were armed

Baltimore Police have shot 10 people this year — eight of them fatally — leading some to question whether police are properly equipped to handle calls involving the mentally ill.

Only one of those shot was carrying a firearm, and several shooting incidents arose from calls to police about a disturbance involving someone with a mental illness. Relatives of some of those killed criticized police tactics, saying they shouldn't have lost loved ones after calling police to defuse situations that had ended peacefully in the past.

"They need better training with mental cases," said Candace Church, 29, whose brother David Yim was shot in April. "They're treating mental patients like criminals, and they're not criminals."

The most recent shooting occurred Saturday, when a 63-year-old man was killed by officers who had been called to the 1600 block of W. Lexington St. to investigate a 911 call for a burglary.

Neighbors and friends said the victim, Rudolph Bell, was a homeless veteran who had recently emerged from a Veterans Affairs program and was affectionately known around the neighborhood as "Mr. Rudy." But police said he attacked an officer with a knife or bottle, cutting the officer on the face and narrowly missing his eye.

The Police Department, which trains all new officers on how to deal with calls involving the mentally ill, has reinstated reviews of shootings to aid in training. Police said that most of the officers involved in shootings had not been authorized to carry Tasers, a less lethal option.

Still, Gene Ryan, the police union's vice president, said police often have little choice in such situations. In at least three of this year's shootings, the suspect had reached for an officer's gun, according to police. In another, police say a man drove a vehicle at a 61-year-old officer who worked as a court liaison.

"The suspects might not have had weapons, but there's always a weapon on scene once the officer is there, and if they get their hands on it, statistics show there's almost a 100 percent chance we're going to get shot," Ryan said. "When [the suspect] tries to pull the gun out of the holster, what do you do?"

The director of the city's mental health organization praised the Police Department's training effort and said services for the mentally ill are lacking.

"If we don't do a good job getting people into treatment and something bad happens, we look to the Police Department and ask why did this person get shot," said Jane Plapinger, the president and chief executive officer of Baltimore Mental Health Systems. "Maryland is one of the best, but we unfortunately have an underfunded public mental health system everywhere in this country."

The Behavioral Emergency Services Team, or B.E.S.T. training, was implemented in 2009 and teaches officers to de-escalate mental crises, minimize arrests, decrease officer injury and direct patients to the city's mental health crisis programs for help. It has become mandatory for recruits.

"The police have been such a steadfast partner — I don't know how many [other] police departments are devoting four full days to this kind of training," Plapinger said.

A. Dwight Pettit, an attorney who has represented the families of many police shooting victims, said the way police handle everyday interactions with citizens — not just incidents that end in shootings — has created a "volcano" of discontent in downtrodden neighborhoods that is heightened after a shooting.

At least three of the people shot by police this year were not reported to have had any weapon at all. Five were reported to have had a knife or "edged object," while one drove at an officer. Only Devonte Bowman, 31, who was fatally shot July 14 in Northwest Baltimore, was reported to have had a gun.

Yim's relatives have twice protested outside City Hall, saying the shooting in the 1200 block of Oakhurst Place was unnecessary. Though police say two large knives were recovered from the scene of the shooting, the officer who fired at Yim was seated in his patrol cruiser at the time, and police said Yim approached from the passenger side of the vehicle.

Yim's family says he is paralyzed on one side of his body and moves slowly, and they can't understand how the shooting could be justified. Yim has not been charged with a crime and the investigation remains open.

"I want justice for my son," said Yim's mother, Janice Thompthin. "There's no way in hell that [the officer] should be working or on administrative leave receiving pay. If this was vice versa, we would be locked up."

Marcella Holloman said her son, Maurice Johnson, took medication for bipolar disorder but hadn't had an episode in several years. Family members called police May 19 after Johnson got upset at a children's birthday party at their Northeast Baltimore home and began throwing things. She watched as police fatally shot him during a struggle that sent an officer crashing through a glass table.

"My son has no reason to be dead," said Holloman, who said her son was her best friend and helped her pay the family bills.

Charles Joe Key, a retired city officer who wrote the agency's rules on use of force and often is called to testify in court about them, said officers are justified under the law to shoot someone posing a threat.

"If someone in your family is mentally disturbed or off their meds, and the cops show up, you have to understand that the cops are not psychologists or psychiatrists," he said. "They'll try to deal with them as gently as they can, but if it gets to the point that they believe someone's life is in jeopardy, they're going to use lethal force.

"People watch movies and think, 'Well, the cop should have or could have done something else,' or, 'The guy is only using his fist and the cop has a gun, so that's not fair.' Cops are ordinary people. They're not Steven Seagal."

Police have been more regularly conducting "after action" reviews, acting on recommendations from a panel that reviewed the fatal police-involved shooting that killed Officer William H. Torbit Jr. last year.

Though officials said there have not been any major training issues that stuck out from this year's shooting incidents, Col. Garnell Green, the commander of the homicide section that investigates police-involved shootings, said in an interview last month that only one of the officers involved in a 2012 shooting at that point had training to carry a Taser.

According to a review of police shootings by The Baltimore Sun, 14 people were shot in 2011. Excluding the four bystanders hit by stray bullets outside the Select Lounge when Torbit was shot by fellow officers, six of the eight victims that year had some type of firearm and the other two had knives.

In 2010, 10 people were shot by officers, two fatally. At least six of the victims had firearms, according to the records. Of the others, one victim was a child struck by an errant bullet when an officer fired at an aggressive pit bull; another officer shot at a moving vehicle; and a third victim was shot when a man advanced on him with a burglary tool.

One of the victims that year was Dennis Gregory, an informant who tipped police that a man on his porch had a weapon. When officers arrived, the man fired at them and Gregory was hit by the return fire. Police said publicly at the time that Gregory had fired at the officers, but documents later obtained by The Baltimore Sun showed that Gregory was unarmed and had been shot by accident.

Gregory Lewis, who grew up with Bell and calls himself a family friend, is reserving judgment about Bell's shooting death, even though many are angry about it. He walked through the vacant home where the shooting occurred, to recover any of Bell's possessions that were left behind, and found it treacherous and "scary."

"In that situation, I can see how everybody was on pins and needles," he said. "It's sad that it had to come to this, but I'm not drawing any conclusions."

Families with relatives struggling with mental illness are encouraged to call the city's crisis line, 410-433-5175, though the agency's mobile crisis teams are not staffed 24 hours a day.

jfenton@baltsun.com

Shootings by city police

2012: 10

2011: 14

2010: 10

Source: Baltimore Sun review of reports

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