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Baltimore police commissioner defends actions of officer who shot 14-year-old boy

Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Davis talks about how the situation developed that led to the police shooting a youth carrying a replica gun. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis defended Thursday the actions of the officer who shot a 14-year-old boy as he ran with a BB gun, saying officers cannot wait to determine whether a gun is real before taking action.

"Just put yourselves in the shoes of these police officers who are in a very emotional moment, and they're chasing someone with a gun. Is it real?" Davis told reporters at a briefing, standing in front of a table with a Beretta semiautomatic pistol and an identical-looking BB gun lying side by side.

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"Police officers don't have to wait until they're being shot to engage in a deadly force scenario. The only time you really know if what looks like a gun is a gun is after someone starts squeezing the trigger."

Dedric Colvin, an eighth-grader at City Springs Middle School, remained hospitalized the day after the shooting with wounds to his leg and shoulder. In his hospital room Thursday morning at Johns Hopkins Hospital's pediatric intensive-care unit, he flinched and sucked in his breath as a nurse unwrapped his bandages.

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His mother, Volanda Young, told The Baltimore Sun that her son was scared and fleeing, and she questioned why police perceived a threat. She said he is a "good kid" who does well in school.

"At the end of the day, he's a kid. It's not like he was out there shooting," she said.

Later, Young met at her home with attorneys from the law firm of William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., who secured a $6.4 million settlement for the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died last April of spinal injuries suffered in police custody. Wednesday's shooting occurred on the one-year anniversary of the riot that followed Gray's death.

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who won the Democratic mayoral primary Tuesday, said she was concerned by the shooting.

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"I hope that this situation was not as aggressive as it appears to be," she said. "I want our children on the streets to be safe. My prayers are that he will be OK."

Pugh said she wants to see a thorough police investigation of the shooting.

"The police have every right to protect our citizens on the streets," she said. "We don't want violence in our streets, but the police need to have the right training."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said the shooting "underscores the systemic lack of accountability to boys like Dedric Colvin, who they are sworn to serve."

"Fourteen-year-old boys play with BB guns all over the country every day without getting shot by police," the ACLU said in a statement. "It dehumanizes black children when law enforcement and our society so quickly seek to justify a shoot-to-kill response when a black child in East Baltimore does the same thing."

Police identified the officer who fired as Officer Thomas Smith, a 12-year veteran. He and another officer, a six-year veteran who was not identified, were leaving an intelligence briefing at police headquarters when they saw the youth walking in the 1100 block of E. Baltimore St. with a basketball in one hand and what appeared to be a semiautomatic pistol in the other, Davis said.

The officers were not in uniform, but Davis said they identified themselves as police and told the boy to stop. He ran about 150 yards, turning up Aisquith Street near a community center. Davis said an independent witness told investigators that the boy, who police say is 13 years old, then stopped.

"He stopped and turned toward our police officers. He still had the firearm in his hand, what looked like a firearm," Davis said. "The independent witness describes the 13-year-old as raising the gun. What direction it was pointed in is a different question; what the 13-year-old said is a different question."

The witness told a television station that the boy had yelled, "It's not real!"

Davis said the boy should not have had the gun in the first place, and described officers as having little choice but to shoot.

"If a person is seen walking down a city street with one of those in his hand, what [does the community] want the police to do?" he asked. "What do they expect us to do? Drive by?"

Kevin Shird, a Baltimore writer and community activist, said police need better training on interacting with potential suspects.

"I don't think they fully understand the magnitude of the distrust in the community," he said. "In this kid's mind, he probably thought the first thing most people think in the streets — to run. ... You're talking about survival skills."

Video from the scene Wednesday showed Maj. Deron Garrity speaking to Dedric's brother, Alvin, and saying that officers can't know whether a gun is real or not when they take action. Alvin questioned whether the shooting was necessary.

"If he's not pointing it at the police, why do they got the right to shoot?" Alvin asked.

"He did," Garrity responded.

Dedric's family also criticized police for taking his mother into custody at the scene. Young was handcuffed and taken to police headquarters, where she was questioned and released without charges. She called the ordeal "humiliating" and said it delayed her from getting to the hospital to be with her son.

Davis said Young had been belligerent and officers "made a decision, a judgment call, in a very volatile scenario" that he was not ready to second-guess.

"My heart goes out to this 13-year-old; my heart goes out to his mother," Davis said.

In the hospital room, Dedric's grandmother sat quietly beside his bed. Some officers had come on Wednesday, his mother said.

The boy was awake and alert, changing channels on the television above his bed. He wore his hair long and it was spread on the pillow behind his head. He wore no shirt, and electrodes for the monitors were pressed on his chest. He asked what police had said about the incident.

School officials sent a crisis team to City Springs on Thursday, and the charter school network that runs the school had the students start their day in a circle expressing their feelings and concerns about the shooting.

"We are deeply concerned about this incident and will explore ways we can help to prevent similar incidents in the future," the Baltimore Curriculum Project said in a statement.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents officers in Baltimore, said police often have only "a split second to make a decision that could save his life or save another's life."

"This is a very, very dangerous job," he said. "In the heat of the moment, you're zeroing in on that weapon, thinking, 'I don't want to die. I've got to do something.'"

Ryan said the incident was tragic, but also questioned why a young boy in Baltimore would have a realistic-looking gun in such a violent city.

"Replica guns are made for a reason," he said. "We all played cops and robbers with toy guns when we were younger, but if you have a replica and you take it out on the street, what was the intention?"

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"I don't know what was in that kid's mind," he said, "but if a police officer confronts you, you should follow his orders."

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Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Liz Bowie and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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