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Batts pledges agency-wide review of weapons use

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts announced an across-the-board review of how city officers use weapons after the accidental shooting of a trainee during exercises last week.

Speaking Tuesday at the police academy on Northern Parkway, Batts said he will review how police use guns, Tasers and other weapons in "every facet of policing this city."

"We had a major procedural breakdown in our systems, and we're working to correct those," Batts told reporters as instruction resumed at the academy after a weeklong suspension. "We're expanding this [review] to ensure we have proper protocols and we're serving this city in a constitutional way."

Batts' comments were his most expansive yet on the shooting last week, though he and other officials released no new details on the incident that left a University of Maryland police officer battling for his life.

Batts said he "knows what happened out there" and "has a good feel for the procedural breakdown." But he did not share that information, citing an ongoing criminal investigation by state police.

The officer remains in critical condition at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center with a wound to the head, police said. Batts said he has visited several times.

"The doctors have said to me that he is progressing better than they had expected, but this will be a long road," Batts told reporters.

He said the officer played linebacker on his high school football team, and "he's being very tough and very strong in this moment."

The independent panel that looked into the "friendly fire" death of Baltimore Officer William H. Torbit in 2011 focused on fatal officer-involved shootings and procedures on use of deadly force.

The review, which cost $75,000, led to policy changes, including making sure that police conducted "after-action" training reviews to analyze shooting incidents and learn from them. The panel also recommended that the Police Department enhance firearms training and emphasize alternatives to lethal force.

James "Chips" Stewart, the law enforcement consultant who chaired the panel, said there is still plenty of room for police to further evaluate their use of weapons.

Stewart said his company recently studied the Las Vegas Police Department for the Department of Justice and made findings that were handed out as a "checklist" for police departments "to see if they have covered these areas." It recommended new tactical practices when multiple officers respond to a crime scene and the implementation of new technologies such as body cameras

Police-involved shootings have been a flash point for department critics. The number of people shot by Baltimore police fell from a recent high of 33 in 2008 to between 10 and 15 each of the past three years. City police have shot six people during the first eight weeks of 2013.

The New York Police Department, which has more than 10 times as many officers as Baltimore, shot 28 people in 2011. The NYPD compiles an annual firearms review that covers such details as the number of shots fired and the distance and stance of the officers.

Between 2006 and 2010, Baltimore officers used Tasers nearly 500 times. The agency says the device leads to fewer officer shootings, but former Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said he was "not a fan," saying officers can become overdependent on them.

The officer who police say fired the shot during the training session remains suspended.

Sources have told The Baltimore Sun that William Scott Kern, an 18-year veteran, believed he was holding a paintball-firing "simunition" weapon when he fired a shot in the direction of trainees during the exercise Feb. 12 at an abandoned state psychiatric hospital.

In fact, the sources said, Kern had reached for his service weapon. They said the shot was not fired as part of the training exercise.

Batts has replaced the commander of the training academy and suspended several other officers. Maj. Joseph Smith, the 25-year veteran who was named Monday to take over the academy, said he has begun to evaluate the procedures and policies there.

Batts said the agency has policies in place to govern the use of force, but officers have to ensure that they are followed.

The academy director was unaware of the training exercise at the long-abandoned Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, and no supervisors were present, police have said.

While there were no supervisors present at the training exercise, one officer there was a member of Batts' executive protection team, The Sun reported last week. The commissioner said he knew that his officer, an academy instructor, was in training that day.

"The specificity of where the training [was] is where I expect my chain of command to have that and be responsible for that, and make sure that procedures and authorizations are done in a proper manner," Batts said. He declined to go into detail about any violations of protocol.

Annapolis Police Sgt. Pamela Johnson, who has served as that department's training coordinator for six years, said she has full confidence in the Baltimore police academy. The small department, which doesn't have its own training academy, has been sending recruits to Baltimore for more than 25 years.

This year, three Annapolis recruits are enrolled, and Johnson said Baltimore police officials have kept her informed of their investigation into the training accident.

"We were contacted by the academy of what happened that day and we were kept in the loop," Johnson said. "We're confident that they'll review their processes and make any changes they need to make."

While Annapolis doesn't train recruits, the department does practice "active shooter" scenarios in which its officers carry paint-cartridge pistols. As policy, the department bans loaded weapons at training sites. Instructors and trainees are not allowed to carry service weapons.

As a precautionary measure, the department posts an armed security officer outside the training site to keep guard and resolve concerns that the officers in training could be vulnerable to an outside attack.

Johnson called the Rosewood shooting "unfortunate."

"Safety is very important, and you cannot have too many safety officers," she said. "We tell our officers that every officer is a safety officer, and I can't stress how important it is to make sure you have those policies and procedures in place when you're working with weapons."

It remains unclear whether the Feb. 12 city training exercise was authorized and whether city officers had permission to use the state building. Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, declined to say whether the state signed off on the exercises.

Batts also addressed trainees and veterans at the academy, and has been talking to other officers about firearms safety.

He described those conversations to reporters.

"This weapon we carry on our hips, they're not toys," he said. "They're not here for games; they're not here for playtime. We have a serious job and a serious responsibility."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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