Appointment of new Baltimore police commissioner revives questions about shootings he was involved in 23 years ago

When Mayor Catherine Pugh appointed a veteran commander this month to take over as commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, the name — Darryl De Sousa — jumped out at Brendan Walsh.

“Jeez,” the longtime West Baltimore poverty worker said. “That’s the same guy that was involved in the shooting of Scooter.”

The memories came flooding back. Hearing the gunshots that killed 26-year-old Garrett “Scooter” Jackson, a patron of the soup kitchen that Walsh and wife Willa Bickham have run in Union Square for 50 years. And another shooting 10 months later, in which De Sousa and two other officers killed George Thomas Jr., a 38-year-old escaped felon, and Melvin James, an 18-year-old bystander.

Walsh and Bickham were among a group of neighbors who were outraged by the incidents in 1995 — and by the lack of answers from police, as De Sousa returned to the streets.

There was a vigil in Scooter’s name, a protest outside police headquarters, a public letter in which Walsh claimed police were “running wild, answerable to no one,” and a petition with 200 signatures — including that of Jackson’s mother, Geraldine — asking for a formal inquiry.

That inquiry never happened, according to the couple, longtime leaders in the Catholic Worker movement. But it should certainly take place now, they say, given De Sousa’s pending appointment.

“Let’s hold on and check this out,” Walsh said. “I think the public’s owed that.”

“We’re just asking questions,” Bickham said. “We would be negligent if we were just silent.”

In a city under a federal consent decree to reform policing, at a time of intense scrutiny in Baltimore and nationwide of police shootings specifically and law enforcement’s use of force generally, some longtime residents have found De Sousa’s past troubling.

De Sousa, 53, has earned broad support in the community during three decades as a police officer and commander. He was cleared of any wrongdoing in both shootings.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, who appointed De Sousa acting commissioner to succeed Commissioner Kevin Davis, said the shootings were “completely vetted” and “did not factor” in her decision.

“He’s well trained,” she said. “He’s had major positions in the police department. He was running patrol.”

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he has no plans to ask De Sousa about the shootings at his confirmation hearing before the City Council.

“Those were justifiable shootings in the line of duty,” Young said. “I really don’t have no problem with that.”

The hearing, which has not been scheduled, will be open to the public.

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Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee and a friend of De Sousa, said he has spoken to De Sousa about the shootings and has no concerns. But he expects De Sousa will be willing to discuss the incidents if asked.

De Sousa “has a deep understanding of the culture of Black Baltimore in a majority-black city whose black residents have had a severely fractured relationship with its police,” Scott said. “He knows that every kid in West Baltimore with a hoodie isn’t carrying a gun, and that they want and should be given the same chance to succeed as a kid in Roland Park.”

Scott said he believes De Sousa is being scrutinized more than Davis “because of his skin color.”

“Many in Baltimore gave Davis three years of no scrutiny,” he said. “But those same people won’t give De Sousa three minutes.”

He declined to say who he was talking about. Davis faced plenty of critics, both before and after his confirmation as commissioner. Some focused on his involvement in an old case in which he and other Prince George’s County officers were accused of interrogating a teenager without a warrant for hours about the whereabouts of his girlfriend, the niece of the agency's deputy chief.

Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, said vetting a potential commissioner’s past is critical for any city — but especially Baltimore.

“Since it’s the commissioner’s job, they need to do a full explanation of these shootings,” Walker said. “The public has a right to know about this person’s record, and the public has to have confidence in that person, and it's especially true here in Baltimore at this critical point, in the early stages of this consent decree.”

De Sousa says he understands people might have questions about the shootings, and he’s willing to answer them.

“I look back on those days and wish it never happened,” he told The Baltimore Sun. “But the truth of the matter is it did happen.”

De Sousa says the shootings have stayed with him. He thinks particularly of James, the bystander, killed by a bullet that ricocheted.

“Do I think about that incident every single day when I wake up and when I go to bed? Absolutely. Do I pray on it every single day? Absolutely. Do I wish that it happened? No.

“I wish, you know, there was like a time clock, that I could go back and change the time, and go back to those days, and wish there was other means.”

Today, he talks about de-escalation, and the sanctity of life, as top priorities to stress to every officer in the department. He wants his officers to de-escalate all confrontations as much as possible.

But he also wants to prioritize officer safety, he says, and doesn’t want officers “to second-guess themselves when they are confronted with an individual that could be armed and poses a threat to them and points a weapon at them.”

That’s what he was confronted with in both of his shootings, he says.

In the December 1995 shooting of James and Thomas, De Sousa said, he and two partners were in plainclothes when a man “approached us, running down the street full speed.”

“I remember it like it was yesterday, unfortunately,” he said. “He approached us full speed, he withdrew a pistol. When he withdrew the pistol, he pulled the trigger on it. There was not a round chambered in his weapon. I just know that because of my training. But I do know that he racked the slide, he chambered a round, and at that point he fired several shots at myself and my two other partners at the time.

“We took cover. He continued to fire several rounds. We in exchange fired back and he succumbed to his injuries. And very, very, very unfortunately, there was a young man that was on the corner that was struck by a ricochet bullet that hit the building, and he succumbed to his injuries.”

Some witnesses blamed the officers. They said Thomas had confronted two of them because he thought they were “thugs chasing a youth,” The Sun reported at the time.

One man, Anthony Tramell, then 42, said De Sousa and the other officers put many people in danger.

“The next block was full of people,” Tramell said. “They were ducking and dodging and bullets were banging all over the street.

“Do the police have a policy: shoot now and ask questions later?”

James’ mother, Doris James, and Tracey Day, the mother of his daughter, sued De Sousa and his partners, Willis Richardson and Kevin Ruth, for $1 million in damages.

Neither James, Day, Richardson nor Ruth could be reached for comment.

James and Day alleged that the officers fired more than 30 shots “in a wild and uncontrolled manner; without stopping.” They said the officers’ “poor aim” resulted in Thomas — their intended target — being shot only once, while another bullet struck James, “who was more than half-block away.”

They said the officers failed to “exercise ordinary and reasonable care.”

The officers’ attorney argued that Thomas walked into the middle of the street, shouted expletives at the officers, and then opened fire at them — causing them to take cover and return fire in self-defense. The attorney, Robert C. Verderaime, wrote in court filings that the officers “were performing their official duties as law enforcement officers,” and acted without malice and acted in good faith.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit, court records show.

In the February 1995 shooting of Jackson, De Sousa said, he was on patrol when he approached a man “acting in a suspicious manner” in West Baltimore. He said the man — Jackson — “turned around, lifted his coat, withdrew a semi-automatic pistol, [and] pointed that pistol at me.”

“I don’t know if he fired or not, to be honest, because of everything that was going on at the time,” De Sousa said. “But I do know that I was looking down the barrel of a semi-automatic gun, and I fired my service weapon and the individual succumbed to the injuries. Do I wish it happened? No.”

De Sousa said Jackson had run toward a wall, but hadn’t been climbing it, as some witnesses at the time had claimed, before turning and pulling his gun out.

De Sousa said he “fired a few shots like my training taught me. I did not know if I hit my target, to be quite frank. I do know that the young man who lost his life did make some subsequent efforts to still retrieve his firearm, putting his hand on the gun and still trying to raise it. I do know that there were individuals that were standing behind me in the community.”

In statements at the time, De Sousa and his partner Kevin Banks gave similar accounts of the incident.

Witnesses told The Sun at the time that Jackson never pulled a gun.

“With all of them officers, he wouldn't have tried to shoot at one of them,” one woman said. “That would be like suicide.”

Jackson’s brother Reginald Jackson sued De Sousa for $500,000.

He alleged that De Sousa fired 16 rounds, “performing one tactical reload, striking [Jackson’s] body approximately 10 times and inflicting as many as 13 gunshot wounds.”

He said three separate “firing sequences” by De Sousa went beyond self-defense. He noted that Banks never fired his weapon.

Reginald Jackson said De Sousa continued to fire the third sequence even after his brother had collapsed and fallen to the ground, and struck him in the back three times — twice in the upper right chest and once in the lower back.

He said Jackson never fired his gun, that the two officers had him cornered, and that he did not pose a threat. He also alleged De Sousa violated department rules and regulations on the use of force.

De Sousa’s lawyer — again, Verderaime — wrote that the shooting “was based solely on [De Sousa’s] protection of himself and others from imminent serious injury or death.”

The case went to trial. A jury found that De Sousa had acted reasonably and cleared him of wrongdoing, court records show.

More than 20 years later, De Sousa’s supporters say, those findings should satisfy questions about his past.

Gary McLhinney was president of the Baltimore police union at the time of the shootings.

“You can’t look at something more than 20 years later and say that that’s a problem for an individual who wants to be police commissioner,” said McLhinney, now a state corrections official. “If that’s the case, you’ve ended dozens of careers in the police department.”

The best commissioners, he said, are those who “have the credibility to say that they were in the street doing the job.”

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, agreed.

“A lot of the people I know in this business, they came up in the department, and they were active police officers, and they weren’t all involved in shootings, but they were active cops. Some have been involved in shootings,” he said. “The standards that we’re holding people to now in terms of the use of force are substantially different than the standards even three or four years ago.”

Tony Dawson, 60, a community activist in Belair-Edison, said he met De Sousa about 10 years ago. De Sousa was the new deputy major in the Northeast, replacing Melvin Russell, a beloved leader who now heads the department’s community collaboration division.

Dawson was skeptical, but not because of De Sousa’s past.

“Before he came into this community, I had no idea what happened in his background. I just needed somebody right then and there,” Dawson said. “And I thought nobody could walk in [Russell’s] shoes.”

But De Sousa surprised him, he says, and eventually thrilled him.

“He was a people person, and his temperament was so even. He was just a kind type of guy, and the type of guy who didn’t raise his voice, but people listened to him,” Dawson said. “We just hit the ground running, man, it was like he was just an extension of Melvin Russell.

“As far as getting the job done, he was out there getting his hands dirty himself.”

Walsh and Bickham said they just want to understand more about what happened.

The fact that Jackson was shot multiple times in the back, for instance, has never sat well with Walsh.

“The extent of the violence here is a little bit more than, ‘He was pointing a gun at me and I had to shoot him,’” he said.

The couple said they understand that times have changed since the 1990s. But they see that as a reason to ask more questions, not fewer.

“There was less police accountability in those days,” Bickham said. “I don’t think that people would have spoken up much at all in those days. But today they do.”

krector@baltsun.com

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