Officer charged in fatal shooting challenges new no-names policy

The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore police officer charged with manslaughter in the fatal shooting of a civilian last year said in court filings that the Police Department's new policy of not releasing names of officers involved in shootings has "reignited" residents' distrust of police and hurts his ability to receive a fair trial.

Officer Thomas Sanders, who is alleged to have shot an unarmed man in the back on Jan. 30, 2008, said in court filings that there "currently exists an extremely volatile climate in Baltimore City in which citizens of Baltimore do not trust the Baltimore Police Department."

He said in the Feb. 4 court filing that the department's policy of not naming officers involved in shootings unless internal investigations determine that they erred has worsened that climate and - because the department named him - implies that he is guilty.

He said that makes it difficult for him to obtain a fair jury trial in the city and asked for a change of venue, which prosecutors plan to oppose.

Police declined to comment on the motion, citing a policy against discussing pending litigation. Though the motion is filed by an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, the union's president said yesterday that the group maintains support for restricting access to the names.

Baltimore police had routinely named officers involved in shootings for decades, but in January, the department adopted a new policy to restrict release of their identities. Police say their new policy is similar to those in New York and other major cities and is designed to prevent retaliation against officers.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and other department officials have said they will continue to name officers involved in shootings they find to be unjustified after an internal investigation. When questioned about the policy at a recent City Council hearing, Bealefeld referred to the Sanders case as proof that the department will name names in such instances.

He has cited Sanders' indictment as showing that the department will rigorously investigate police-involved shootings and sanction officers when necessary.

The policy has come under fire from the Maryland branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and some local elected officials, who say it cloaks police activity behind a layer of secrecy and diminishes trust between the department and the community.

"The citizens of Baltimore are entitled to be able to make their own judgments about what the police are doing and how they're doing it, and shouldn't have to rely on the good graces of the city Police Department to keep them informed," said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU.

"Let's remember: The police work for us. They are not some independent entity to which we are beholden."

The motion by Sanders came to light as details continued to emerge in Tuesday night's fatal shooting of 61-year-old Joseph Forrest in East Baltimore by two police officers.

The Baltimore Sun has learned that one of the officers who shot Forrest had also allegedly been attacked by a second man, the victim's nephew, Joseph Forrest Jr.

Police said the 45-year-old stepped on Officer Traci L. McKissick's hand at the direction of his uncle in an attempt to disarm her. The younger Forrest was arrested at the scene and charged with assault and disarming a law enforcement officer. He remains jailed without bond.

After initial inquiries about the shooting, the younger Forrest's involvement was not disclosed by police, who had limited the release of information in an attempt to prevent McKissick's name from becoming public.

Candles, balloons and teddy bears were placed outside Forrest's home on North Lakewood Avenue yesterday, and a sign in his window reads, "We all miss you."

Forrest's family is questioning why he was shot, reportedly as many as a dozen times, after being struck in the upper body and after McKissick had recovered her weapon.

But relatives were unable to clarify how Forrest, affectionately known as "Uncle Snicker," got into the scuffle in the first place, only offering that he might have reached for her weapon during the scrum because he felt his life was in danger.

Police said they responded to a domestic call in the area, and at some point an officer who came to provide backup saw McKissick being held in a headlock by Forrest.

Relatives say Forrest was not involved in the initial domestic call and had been trying to make peace between others. McKissick, they say, had been dispatched to the scene, and they accuse her of being rude and cursing at them.

They believed she had left the residence as paramedics treated an injured man and said the incident appeared to have blown over.

Forrest's daughter, 34-year-old Alisa Forrest, said he walked outside to get air, and she claims her father was pushed by McKissick. She ran downstairs and saw McKissick and Forrest on the ground fighting, with both reaching for the gun.

"I see that she has Daddy and Daddy has her," Alisa Forrest said. "They're both reaching for the gun - he don't want her to shoot him."

She said that McKissick broke free after the backup officer fired at Forrest's upper body and that McKissick proceeded to empty her weapon into Forrest's leg.

"She got up and just started shooting," Alisa Forrest said.

McKissick and the other officer have been placed on administrative leave while the incident is being investigated, a standard practice.

A police source with knowledge of the investigation said detectives believe the backup officer's shot was made at close range and was ultimately the fatal shot. They also believe McKissick fired all of her shots into one of Forrest's legs, in rapid succession, while she was still engaged with the man.

The Sun reported yesterday that McKissick, a five-year veteran, was involved four years ago in an incident in which a man who was being placed under arrest broke free and was able to take her gun, which has never been recovered.

Even though the victim and key witness was a city officer, prosecutors dropped the case after questions were raised about whether documents had been altered by police.

Family members said Forrest was a volunteer at nearby William Paca Elementary School and the patriarch and leader of a family that included 15 children and numerous other relatives.

"Everybody in the neighborhood can you tell you this isn't his demeanor," said niece Odessia Bradstreet. "This is not him. It's not something he would do."

Baltimore Sun reporters Melissa Harris and Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

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