Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. $12 for 12 weeks.
News Opinion Editorial

Command failure in police training accident

The breakdown that led to the shooting of a University of Maryland police officer during a training exercise last week does not appear to be a matter of insufficient policies and procedures. The Baltimore City Police Department, whose officer has been identified as having shot the trainee in the head after mistakenly pulling his service weapon, has policies in place that should have prevented this from happening. The problem appears to be that they were not followed, and the department's main focus needs to be on determining who was at fault — and, most likely, dismissing them from the force.

Multiple investigations into the incident are under way, and the picture of what happened Tuesday afternoon is not complete. However, it is clear that the training exercise was conducted without the knowledge of top commanders, including the director of the department's training academy, and that no supervisors were on site. The department's top brass didn't even know that city officers were using the abandoned buildings at the shuttered Rosewood Center site in Owings Mills. The officer who fired the shot, identified as 18-year veteran William Scott Kern, was reportedly on site but not participating in a drill when, evidently intending a joke, he reached for what he thought to be a paint cartridge pistol and instead grabbed his loaded handgun and pointed it at recruits who were looking through a window from another room.

The University of Maryland officer, who has not been identified, was struck in the head but survived. Whether he will ultimately recover and to what degree is unknown. Another officer was injured by the broken glass from the window.

The Maryland State Police are conducting the primary investigation of the incident, since it took place on state property. Theirs is a criminal investigation, and ultimately they will pass their findings on to Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who will determine whether any charges should be filed.

Ultimately, though, such an investigation will not determine all those at fault because it will not reveal who knew what and when about the exercise, who authorized it and whether the culture of safety in Baltimore police training exercises has been compromised. Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has vowed to get to the bottom of the matter, and he has asked both the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions and the department's internal affairs unit to investigate. In the meantime, he has stopped all training activity and suspended six officers, including the major in charge of the police academy. Mr. Batts has pledged that the results of all the investigations will be made public.

That is essential to rebuilding public trust and restoring the reputation of his agency. A useful model for him to consider is the aftermath of the training death six years before — almost to the day — of Baltimore fire cadet Racheal Wilson. She was killed during a live burn exercise in February 2007, and within two weeks, the head of the Baltimore Fire Department's training academy had been fired amid reports of widespread safety violations. Ultimately, three people would lose their jobs over Ms. Wilson's death, and it would be a factor in Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr.'s resignation nine months later. Then-mayor Sheila Dixon took direct responsibility for making changes in the department, brought in an outside agency to determine what went wrong, and made public reports of dozens of safety violations.

Mr. Batts has been on the job for six months and is still remaking the agency. He had changed the oversight of the agency's training activities within the last few weeks, putting an officer who had previously headed the department's fiscal section in charge, and placing the division under his chief of staff rather than a deputy commissioner. He also hired Los Angeles Police Department veteran Jerry Rodriguez to head a new Bureau of Professional Standards, which includes internal affairs, audits and other functions. Given the history of police corruption scandals in the last few years — including officers convicted in a towing kickback scheme and another who was dealing drugs out of a station parking lot — Mr. Batts was wise to create that bureau and to hire its head from outside the agency. Now that move will add credibility to the internal investigation into last week's shooting.

Mr. Batts said after the shooting that he would "do everything in my power [to] find out what happened and [make sure] something like this never happens again." That's going to take more than, for example, creating rules to prevent officers from carrying loaded handguns in training drills. Those rules already exist, and the department's training procedures are already subject to regular outside audits. The situation requires finding fault, assigning blame and taking action against those whose negligence and poor judgment contributed to an entirely preventable tragedy. It is a major test for a new commissioner, and both the public and the members of his force are going to be watching him closely.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
    Related Content
    Comments
    Loading