For a department that has seen more than its share of troubles, perhaps none could count as a more painful failure for the Baltimore Police Department than the January killing of plainclothes Officer William Torbit Jr. by friendly fire as he was trying to break up a fight outside a downtown club. The incident, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it, cast a stain on Mr. Torbit, the other officers and the entire department's training, practice and procedures. The decision by City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein not to charge anyone in connection with the incident, which also resulted in the death of a civilian, Sean Gamble, provides a degree of exoneration for the officers, but it doesn't erase what happened.
The conclusion of the state's attorney's office, after months of investigation and extensive review of surveillance video, was that the night's events boiled down to a series of well-meaning but tragic decisions. Mr. Torbit, a well-respected, veteran narcotics officer, would not ordinarily have been involved in crowd control, but he responded that night to a distress call from a fellow officer. That's why he was in the dangerous position of trying to break up a fight while out of uniform and, perhaps, why the unruly crowd outside the club — including Mr. Gamble — evidently misunderstood his intentions and responded aggressively.
It's also why the four other officers did not realize who Mr. Torbit was and, when they saw a gun, opened fire on him. Whether that reaction — a fusillade of more than 30 bullets — was reasonable is difficult to judge in the harsh light of day, but Mr. Bernstein concluded it wasn't criminal. Mr. Bernstein's recent aggressive prosecution of Gahiji A. Tshamba, another Baltimore officer who shot and killed a man during an alcohol-fueled confrontation outside a different downtown club, earns him some benefit of the doubt that he is not overly deferential to the police.
It would have been better, in some respects, if Mr. Bernstein had brought the matter before a grand jury to provide an independent evaluation of the evidence, but since grand jury investigations are secret, that could have prevented a full, public accounting of the matter. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is doing the right thing in ordering the city solicitor to review the investigative file and make it public as soon as possible. That will help the public decide for itself whether Mr. Bernstein is right.
But what is beyond dispute is that this never should have happened and cannot be allowed to happen again. The mayor is promising that a panel of law enforcement experts she convened to review the incident will produce a report in the coming weeks covering the circumstances of the incident; whether the officers acted within department policies on the use of deadly force; and department policies and training on the identification of plainclothes officers, crowd control techniques, deployment in emergency and firearms use.
But the most obvious way this incident could have been avoided would have been for Officer Torbit to be in uniform. Wearing jeans and a dark jacket, he blended into the crowd spilling out of the club. In fact, Mr. Bernstein said part of the reason why a man seen in surveillance tapes punching the officer is not being charged is that he likely didn't know that Mr. Torbit was a policeman. In uniform, he would have conveyed authority that might have prevented him from getting in trouble in the first place. But if he still had gotten in a struggle with the club patrons, his fellow officers likely would not have reacted as they did when the saw him with a gun.
In the wake of the killing, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III issued a temporary order for plainclothes officers to dress in a way that more clearly identified them as police. He should go further and require a significant, permanent reduction in the practice of police patrolling the streets out of uniform.
The reason police like to wear plain clothes while on patrol is that it enables them to get closer to criminal activity so they can witness it in progress. Seeing a crime take place is particularly important for narcotics officers, like Mr. Torbit. But other common tactics, such as driving in unmarked, rental cars to further conceal their identity can have the same effect. After all, once officers get out of the car, no matter what they're wearing, the criminals probably figure out who they are pretty fast.
Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police President Robert F. Cherry said that in his patrol days, he found a lot of advantages to being in uniform. Not only does it clearly identify an officer to his colleagues, but it connotes a degree of professionalism and commands respect. Furthermore, the uniform provides easy access to all of an officer's tools — an espantoon, mace, handcuffs, etc. — that might be necessary in a dangerous situation.
Undercover officers obviously can't be in uniform, and there may be other specific circumstances in which plain clothes are necessary. But those cases should be the rare exception. Other cities have found success after putting virtually all of their patrol officers back in uniform. This tragic incident should prompt Baltimore to do it too.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun