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Independent investigation needed in Gaines' death

Korryn Gaines' death may have been legally 'justified,' but that doesn't mean it was inevitable.

"Justified" may be the legal term of art for a police shooting that falls within the bounds of the law, but it is certainly an unfortunate one to apply in the case of Korryn Gaines.

We don't disagree with Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger's decision not to pursue charges against the officer who fatally shot her and wounded her son. Mr. Shellenberger's job was to determine whether, at the moment the officer pulled the trigger, he had reason to fear for his life. Given that Gaines was at that moment in a covered position, pointing a shotgun at police and refusing requests to put it down, we have a hard time imagining a prosecutor could convince a jury that the officer had no legitimate concern for his safety and that of his colleagues.

But "justified" in the legal sense does not mean the shooting was inevitable, necessary or wise. The officer's decision to fire was the culmination of an hours-long chain of events, and we are left to wonder whether different decisions along the way might have led to different results. Gaines' fiance, who left with one child at the beginning of the standoff last month at Gaines' apartment, told officers that she suffered from mental illness and was off her medication. It is at the very least tragic that the confrontation sparked by officers' attempts to serve a warrant related to traffic violations should have ended in her death.

Per its normal procedures, the county police department is conducting two separate internal reviews aimed at evaluating the broader circumstances of the encounter, not just the final decision to use force. The department and Chief Jim Johnson have been forthcoming about the investigation into this case so far, and we expect they will not allow Mr. Shellenberger's conclusion be the final word. The more transparent they are in this case — and the more unsparing they are in their evaluation of their handling of it — the better.

But we question whether an internal review, no matter how honestly conducted, will suffice at this point to quell community concerns about Gaines' death. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund this week requested that County Executive Kevin Kamenetz initiate an independent review of police policies on the use of force, barricade situations, serving warrants and de-escalation training. A spokeswoman said he provided the defense fund with documents it requested and instructed the police department to conduct "a study of practices and procedures in barricade situations."

That's good, but the department would ultimately be better served by engaging outside experts to review its handling of this case. Although Baltimore County has taken important steps in recent years to foster trust between the community and police — notably, when Mr. Kamenetz decided to outfit officers with body cameras despite a task force's recommendation against it — the department, like all others nationwide, is operating under a cloud of suspicion that darkens with each African American killed by police.

The New York Times on Wednesday reported Mr. Shellenberger's decision not to pursue charges in Gaines' death in the same story that described riots in Charlotte over the police killing of a black man outside an apartment complex and furor in Tulsa following the police shooting of an unarmed man with his hands up. That was the same day that Tawon Boyd, a 21-year-old African American man, died after being wounded in a struggle with Baltimore County police.

We have no reason to believe Chief Johnson will allow his department to be anything less than thorough and objective in its review of Gaines' death, but an independent investigation along the lines of what the NAACP Legal Defense Fund requested is the best way to lay any reasonable doubts to rest. In the current climate, Baltimore County risks seeing its police department become just one more example in the national narrative about black deaths at the hands of police. Chief Johnson can't afford to let that happen.

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