IT'S EASY to second guess a police officer who fires his or her gun. Even officers who have been in such a situation can't say they would react the same way every time. Any number of variables -- even how much sleep the officer got the night before -- could have an impact on the choice he makes. The decision that Howard County police Sgt. A. J. Bellido de Luna made last Tuesday left a man dead. John R. Sierra, 39, of Ellicott City died after being shot once in the chest by the officer. Sgt. Bellido de Luna had responded to a report of an intoxicated man with a knife. Mr. Sierra was killed in a subsequent confrontation. An ongoing investigation will judge whether Sgt. Bellido de Luna made the right decision. Questions must be asked to determine not only if the shooting was justified but whether local police procedures are adequate in situations involving an armed person. Sgt. Bellido de Luna is a traffic officer who responded to the call because he was nearby. Witnesses say Mr. Sierra initially responded to the sergeant's command to drop the knife and lie down. But Mr. Sierra retrieved the weapon and moved toward the officer while he was trying to call for backup. The Supreme Court said in 1989 that no precise standard could determine when police should use deadly force. Lower courts had ruled police have no constitutional duty to use nondeadly alternatives first. The reality is that sometimes deadly force is the only answer. Officers often must act swiftly to protect their lives and those of others. Police departments can help ensure their officers make the right decision through constant evaluation of their abilities -- mental and otherwise -- to handle dangerous situations, and by adequately equipping officers with nondeadly options, and by making sure officers respond in appropriate numbers when the possibility of violence exists.
Pub Date: 1/25/99