Sometimes, police are justified to shoot


THE BRIGADE of civilian know-it-alls, naysayers and cop bashers are at it again. Two years ago, they demanded the head of Baltimore City police officer Charles Smothers after he shot and killed a knife-wielding James Quarles in Lexington Market.

This time, they're in New York City. The protesters aren't black, as they were in the Quarles case. It's the Hasidic Jewish community that's upset, because officers fatally shot Gideon Busch the night of Aug. 30. In the New York and Baltimore cases, protesters are wrong.

New York police shot Busch after he attacked a sergeant with a hammer. Smothers shot Quarles after he refused to drop a knife, went into a crouch and moved his left foot forward.

Let's all take a pop quiz. Question No. 1: Can anyone in America's benighted civilian population say the words "justified police shooting"? Apparently not.

All police shootings are equal, in the eyes of some folks. But the Busch shooting is nothing like the February shooting of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo by the New York Police Department's aggressive and possibly out-of-control Street Crimes Unit. Diallo was stopped for questioning. His only crime was looking like a rape suspect. Busch, it bears repeating, was armed with a hammer and in the act of assaulting a police sergeant with it.

(The jury's still out on Monday's shooting of Tambra W. Eddinger, 40, whom Baltimore County police shot dead after she allegedly threatened them with a rifle in her Rodgers Forge home.)

Pop quiz question No. 2: Can any of the second-guessers distinguish a police shooting in which a suspect is unarmed from one in which a suspect is armed?

Some people just don't get it. The New York Daily News quoted state Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, who asked how the shooting was justified.

"This is not Dodge City," the Daily News story quoted Hikind. "This is Borough Park."

Busch's mother, Doris Busch Boskey, had this to say in the Daily News account:

"He had no gun. He had no knife. He was not violent. They didn't try to do anything but kill him."

No, dear. He had a hammer. Anyone with the IQ of a cactus can figure out that a hammer, used to attack, can be a deadly weapon. What would Hikind and Boskey have had police do? Wait until the sergeant's head was split open before they opened fire?

Fortunately for police officers nationwide, they're trained otherwise. Rob Weinhold, a spokesman for Baltimore's Police Department, wouldn't comment specifically about the Busch shooting. But he made a general statement about the occasions when officers are permitted to use deadly force.

"The policy dictates that if the officer believes the individual poses an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to either the officer or someone else, deadly force is used," Weinhold said. "It's a discretionary decision used by the officer, but it's a discretion based on policy."

Ah, officer discretion.

Pop quiz question No. 3: Could the phrase "officer discretion" possibly mean that officers, faced with a life-or-death situation (say, a man beating the stuffings out of a fellow officer with a hammer) have the duty to size up things for themselves and decide whether or not to use deadly force?

This is the situation Smothers faced in Baltimore's Lexington Market two years ago, when Quarles ignored repeated demands to drop his knife. Smothers used his discretion in deciding to fire. His critics howled that he didn't have to shoot, but his critics weren't 4 feet from a knife-wielding man crouching ominously.

"He didn't have to shoot that boy." Walk nearly any Baltimore street, and you'll still hear Baltimoreans say that of Smothers. What they mean -- the only thing they can mean, really -- is that in Smothers' shoes, they wouldn't have shot Quarles. That's fine. But there's no reason Smothers should have risked being stabbed to death (and Quarles' foot movement indicated he was about to lurch forward and slice Smothers to ribbons) for the idiotic beliefs of civilians who haven't had a second's worth of police training.

The same applies to the Busch shooting. The assemblyman who wonders how the shooting was justified and the distraught mother who believed her son was a pacifist should heed Rob Weinhold's words of caution:

"Often, untrained citizens don't realize the serious bodily injury or death one can impose by using a gun, knife or other deadly weapon."

Which brings us to pop quiz question No. 4: What would the reaction of all these outraged citizens have been had Busch beaten that sergeant to death with that hammer?

Pub Date: 9/08/99

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