Civil trial begins in fatal Select Lounge police shooting

Civil jury will determine whether victims of a 2011 friendly-fire police shooting will get damages from city.

A civil jury began hearing testimony Monday to decide whether the victims of a friendly-fire police shooting outside a downtown nightclub in 2011 should get damages from the city.

Baltimore Officer William H. Torbit Jr. fatally shot Sean Gamble while breaking up fights outside the Select Lounge club, then was fired upon and killed by four officers who didn't realize he was one of their own, according to a police investigation.

The incident jolted the agency, prompting an independent commission that faulted officers' decision-making and led to changes in policies and procedures. No criminal charges were filed, and any disciplinary action taken by the department has been kept private by state law.

More than four years later, lawsuits filed by the families of Gamble and Torbit, along with three women struck by stray bullets, have been consolidated and are being heard by one jury in Baltimore Circuit Court to determine whether any of the victims should be compensated. The trial is expected to take four weeks and could feature 200 witnesses.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said that the Police Department lacked safety procedures and that the four officers recklessly fired 34 shots at Torbit with others nearby. Robert B. Schulman, an attorney for the Torbit family, said the officers should have paused to identify Torbit before firing in the darkness.

"All they had to do to avoid his death was take a second to look at his face," Schulman said.

James Fields, an attorney appointed by the city to represent the four officers who fired their weapons as well as two others who were at the scene, told jurors that the officers followed their training even when faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Fields said Torbit, dressed in street clothes, fired his weapon erratically in a crowded area. The officers — Latora Craig, Harry Dodge, Harry Pawley, and Toyia Williams — fired to protect people in the parking lot, he said.

The complaint by Gamble's family also names the company that ran the parking lot where the shooting occurred and the company that leased it to them.

The consolidation of the lawsuits could put the plaintiffs' arguments at odds in some circumstances.

For example, Rusty Arbaugh, an attorney for Gamble's family, described Torbit as a "man dressed in black" who cursed at Gamble. Schulman, the attorney for Torbit's family, repeatedly referred to Torbit's "plainclothes uniform" and said he was dealing with people who wouldn't listen to police orders.

The shooting was the first incident of fatal friendly fire involving on-duty Baltimore police officers in more than 80 years.

Then-State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein found the officers were legally justified in using lethal force and declined to file charges. An outside commission appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review the incident agreed that the shootings were justified but faulted decisions made by the officers, including Torbit, who was criticized in the report.

The review led to changes including requiring plainclothes officers to wear yellow vests or jackets emblazoned with the word "police."

It also sparked a discussion about internal procedures that the commission said hinder investigations of police shootings — a debate that has taken on greater prominence with increased scrutiny of police misconduct in recent years.

Torbit was among 33 officers who responded to the club at Paca and Franklin Streets in the early hours of Jan. 9, 2011, after multiple reports of fighting.

In the parking lot outside, a group of women including Jazzmin Graves and Trina Harris got into an argument with the driver of a vehicle that had brushed against Graves, according to the police investigation.

Torbit, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans with a badge around his neck and a handgun holstered on his waist, sent the driver on her way, but Gamble and his friends took issue with Torbit's approach and began arguing with him.

A friend of Gamble's, Darrell Baker, punched Torbit in the face. Torbit fell to the ground and was swarmed by people who punched and stomped him. Under attack, Torbit drew his weapon and fired eight shots, investigators determined.

The nearby officers, who police say had been trying to break up the fight, fired on Torbit, hitting him 20 times. Errant bullets hit Graves, Harris and Jamie Jordan, who also are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Marc Partee, then-deputy commander of the Central District and a defendant in the lawsuit, eventually ordered the club shut down.

In their opening statements, the plaintiffs said Partee summoned officers to the area with no plan to deal with the crowd, and the officers were quick to shoot and failed to render aid to any of the victims. Arbaugh said someone who tried to help Gamble was even stopped and arrested.

Latoya Francis-Williams, the attorney for Jordan, said police would use "buzzwords" like "split-second choices, hindsight is 20/20, 'My job is hard' and 'Don't Monday-morning quarterback me.'"

"Don't be fooled," Francis-Williams said. "Nothing you will hear makes it OK for officers to throw out their rules and regulations."

The Police Department could not immediately confirm the current employment status of the officers who fired the shots, but court records show Dodge, Pawley and Craig have made arrests in recent weeks. Partee was promoted to commander of the Northwestern District. Another officer, Lt. Charles Clayton, also is a defendant and listed in court documents as an active officer.

Fields said police were accustomed to breaking up large crowds outside downtown clubs, and the officers involved had done so many times without major problems. He said Schulman's assertion that the officers should have realized Torbit was one of their own was "not real life. This isn't TV."

"You identify the threat and act according to the significance of the threat," Fields said. He also faulted Torbit, who he said was repeatedly told not to wade into the crowd because he was blending in.

Fields said the officers involved knew Torbit well and revered him. He noted that Williams cradled Torbit in her arms as he lay dying.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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