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Police officers who shoot face 'a no-win situation,' ex cops say

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Ed Andrews was a police officer in Washington, D.C., and was making a traffic stop one time when the person in the car, "a big, huge man," suddenly rushed at him.

"He pushed open the door and knocked me down. I had to pull my weapon," Andrews, who now practices criminal defense law in Bel Air, recalled Monday. "In a case like that, I had a split second to make a choice."

Fortunately, Andrews said, he did not end up firing his service weapon and escaped harm.

But, as Andrews pointed out, police officers are often forced to make a lightning-fast decision that could spell the difference between life and death, theirs and someone else's. Sometimes the outcome is the latter.

That choice has been a focus of public attention locally since Saturday night, when a Harford County Sheriff's deputy shot a man suspected of breaking into a Bel Air area snowball stand, who had also been reported to police as acting erratic and hostile at several other businesses nearby.

The shooting cost 19-year-old Seth Beckman, of Bel Air, his life. The deputy, identified Tuesday afternoon as David Feeney, has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of the incident. According to the Sheriff's Office, Feeney became a deputy in June 2012, after transferring from the agency's corrections division, which he joined in 2011.

While many details about the shooting have not yet been made public, Andrews said the crucial question going forward will undoubtedly be how threatened the officer felt and was it serious enough to justify shooting.

"You are placed in the position oftentimes, and I have been there myself, when you have to make a decision and you have to make it quickly. Often that decision can mean your life or someone else's," he said.

'Deadly force situation'

Chris Streett, a Bel Air resident who spent 20 years as a SWAT sergeant with the Baltimore City Police Department before retiring, was shot twice in the line of duty.

One time was in a barricade situation in southwest Baltimore that nearly cost him his life, with the bullet tearing apart his shoulder, damaging his lung and breaking his jaw.

"If you are lucky, you have a tenth of a second to decide if you are going to live or die, in many cases, and that decision has to be the right one," Streett said Monday.

Police-involved shootings in real life are not like what people see on TV, with the suspects often being shot in a leg or arm, Streett said.

"If it's a deadly force situation, it's a deadly force situation. In a close encounter like this, you are lucky to get a round off," he said. "Nobody is shooting to kill somebody, but you are shooting to incapacitate them."

Andrews agreed.

"If you have to pull your weapon, you shoot to hit a major part of the body," he said.

Asked if Saturday's shooting near Bel Air could affect public perception of the Harford County Sheriff's Office, or law enforcement in general, Andrews replied: "Of course it could."

He cautioned people to wait before making any conclusions or pointing fingers.

"More facts should come out before the public makes that decision," he said.

Also, even if the use of force were found to be unjustified, "it shouldn't reflect on the other members of the force," Andrews said. "One bad apple doesn't spoil the whole basket. These things aren't happening every other month, every other week."

The Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union declined to comment for this article, as did the Maryland Troopers Association, which represents State Police troopers. The president of the Harford Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents officers in the county's three municipal police departments, could not be reached for comment.

'Second-guessed'

Andrews said he holds Harford's deputies in high regard.

"I cannot imagine this deputy discharging his weapon unless his life was imminently in danger," he explained. "The Harford County Sheriff's Office gets very good training. They [at the training] really bring home the requirement that you just don't pull your weapon out of your holster unless there is a real need to do that."

While other equipment, most notably a TASER, is an option for police, Andrews said using it may not always be feasible because of the distance between people or the physical layout of the scene.

"I would tend to believe, when an officer – in this county, anyway – pulls a weapon, it is probably justified," he added.

Justified or not, Streett said the deputy who fatally shot Mr. Beckman will have to live with that for the rest of his life.

"I know this poor guy was just confronted by a no-win situation," Streett said.

He said people should look at what had happened prior to Mr. Beckman's encounter with the deputy.

"I can picture exactly what happened. You have a split second when the whole world is closing around you," Streett said. "I can't even begin to tell you how fast these things happen."

"After it's all over, you know you are going to be second-guessed by everyone who comes down the road," he said, adding that he received a note from Baltimore officials long after he was shot, saying that they "declined to prosecute" him.

"I never even saw the guy," Streett said of the man who shot him, as well as his partner, in the barricade.

But as a law enforcement officer, Streett noted with a smile, "you have to be right 100 percent of the time."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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