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Batts' peevish response to hospital death [Editorial]

Without knowing all the facts, it's impossible to say whether police officers acted responsibly in the events leading up to the death of 19-year-old George V. King, who was reportedly struck repeatedly with a Taser by an officer seeking to help staff and security at Good Samaritan Hospital subdue him. Was it appropriate for police to get involved in the first place? Was their use of force justifiable? We don't know, and Commissioner Anthony W. Batts is right to ask the public to reserve judgment.

But Mr. Batts is committing precisely the offense he's warning against by declaring a "moratorium" on sending police to hospitals and mental health facilities without a supervisor's go-ahead. That peevish response to protests over the police involvement in King's death is unbecoming and an abdication of the Baltimore Police Department's responsibility to respond to citizens' calls for assistance, no matter where in the city they may be.

Speaking on the "Marc Steiner Show" on Wednesday, Mr. Batts expressed frustration about the difficult situation his officer was placed in. King, who had gone to the hospital after a bad reaction to medication, became violent and resisted the attempts of eight or more hospital staff to restrain him. "What is it they wanted him" — the officer — "to do?" Mr. Batts asked. Indeed, there is little a police officer can add to such a situation other than his training in the use of force and his authority to employ it to restore order. Once force is applied, there can be a fine line between what is necessary and what is excessive. We do not envy officers who have to make snap judgments that can have deadly consequences.

However, that's part of the job, and the solution is not for supervisors sitting in police stations to decide, based on little direct information, whether police should respond to the scene of a complaint. How can the department know if responding to a call would put an officer "into a position of enforcement action without a clear violation of existing law or a threat to human life" without actually observing what's going on? A policy like the one Mr. Batts suggested might have allowed the department to avoid a situation like the one it's currently experiencing, but how much worse would it be if a decision not to respond to a future call — or even a delay in responding while a supervisor evaluates the situation — leads to greater injury or loss of life?

Moreover, there is simply no justification for differentiating between calls from hospitals and calls from anywhere else. How would this situation have been different if the incident had occurred in a shopping mall or a restaurant or in someone's home? It's unconscionable that the police would deliberately provide less protection to Baltimoreans in hospitals than anywhere else in the city.

Perhaps the officer in this case should not have engaged in the struggle with King. But that's a decision that can only be made after arriving at the scene and assessing the situation. If Mr. Batts' officers are incapable of doing that, the problem lies with his department's training, not with the people calling for help.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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