An undercover narcotics officer was getting out of an unmarked car with his gun drawn when the weapon accidentally fired and a single bullet struck two teenagers Monday in a Howard County neighborhood, police said yesterday.
County police said the department's internal affairs division is investigating the shooting, which stemmed from suspicion of drug activity just before 5:20 p.m. in the 8300 block of Pleasant Chase Road in Jessup.
"During the process of exiting the vehicle, the gun fired," Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman, said during a news conference yesterday at police headquarters in Ellicott City.
"Exactly how or why that happened is what internal affairs is working to determine right now," she said.
Also yesterday, police released the identities of the victims: Garcia Wilson, 15, and Dwain Usery, 14, both of Jessup.
Wilson was treated at Howard County General Hospital and released Monday night. Usery was in fair condition yesterday at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, Llewellyn said.
Investigators believe that the bullet struck Wilson's arm before hitting Usery in the abdomen, Llewellyn said.
Police said illegal drugs were recovered at the scene, but the teens have not been charged with any crime, she said.
The name of the officer involved in the shooting is being withheld, Llewellyn said, referring to department policy on the identities of undercover police.
The officer was put on administrative duty Monday and will be reassigned upon returning to work after the investigation, she said.
"We're not going to speculate about how long the investigation will take," she said.
The officer has worked in law enforcement for seven years, including four with Howard County police, Llewellyn said.
An undisclosed number of undercover officers were conducting drug surveillance in the neighborhood, which is made up of detached, single-family homes and townhouses.
After seeing suspected drug activity, the officers stopped to question the boys, who were walking in the street, police said.
Although Llewellyn declined to say whether the officer's gun was pointed at anyone or why the officer drew his gun, she said it is common for officers in such a situation to have a weapon out.
"Being an undercover narcotics officer is one of the most dangerous assignments in a Police Department," Llewellyn said.
"These officers have to assess the possible risk of every situation they enter. These detectives also know from experience that weapons often go hand-in-hand with the street drug trade.
"While I don't have specific details yet about this particular officer and situation, in general, it would not be unusual for an undercover narcotics officer to have his weapon available as he approaches a potentially dangerous situation," she said.
The decision to draw a weapon is based on an officer's discretion, said Dan Besseck, president of the Howard County Police Officers' Association.
"To point a weapon at somebody, there has to be some point of perceived threat," Besseck said, calling the shooting a "tragic accident."
The teenagers are freshmen at Hammond High School in Columbia, according to the county school system.
Hammond's principal sent a note to parents of students yesterday offering counseling for any students who "appear to be unsettled."
Usery has attended Howard public schools since kindergarten, according to Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for county schools. He attended Deep Run Elementary and Patuxent Valley Middle before entering Hammond.
Garcia has attended Howard schools since third grade, Caplan said. Garcia previously attended Baltimore schools.
Attempts to reach family members of the victims yesterday were unsuccessful.
Howard police Chief William J. McMahon spoke with the boys' families, Llewellyn said.
"He too, was encouraged to hear that the prognosis was good for both young men," the spokeswoman said.