Just sentence in Tshamba case

In sentencing former Baltimore City police Officer Gahiji A. Tshamba to 15 years in prison Tuesday for the fatal shooting of an unarmed man outside a Mount Vernon nightclub last year, Circuit Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon sent a powerful message: that no one, including those entrusted with protecting the public safety, is above the law. In a city where relations between police and residents have often been strained, the severity of the punishment should serve to reassure citizens that egregious criminal misconduct by police will not be tolerated and that the justice system will act swiftly and forcefully to hold wrongdoers to account.

Mr. Tshamba was found guilty in June of voluntary manslaughter and a handgun violation in the shooting death of Iraq War veteran Tyrone Brown, an event precipitated when Mr. Brown patted or groped the buttocks of Mr. Tshamba's female companion as a group of people were leaving the Red Maple lounge through an alley behind the club. It appears both men had been drinking, and that Mr. Brown's inappropriate touching, while highly offensive to the woman, was intended as a prank.

What happened next was anything but funny, however. An argument erupted that quickly escalated when Mr. Tshamba drew his service weapon and ordered Mr. Brown to lie on the ground — without, however, identifying himself as a police officer. According to Mr. Brown's sister, Chantay Kangalee, who Judge Hargadon said was the most credible witness to the incident, Mr. Brown was trying to defuse the situation when he raised his hands and turned away from the officer to make sure his sister was out of the line of fire. When he turned back toward Mr. Tshamba, with his hands still in the air, the officer emptied his weapon at the unarmed man, who died a few hours later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

In sending Mr. Tshamba to prison for 15 years, Judge Hargadon rejected the defense's request for the minimum sentence of five years, calling Mr. Tshamba's behavior an unreasonable overreaction. Ironically, Mr. Tshamba's behavior echoed the violent code of the streets, under which any perceived slight to one's manhood or authority must be instantly met with maximum physical force — the very type of behavior that, as an officer, Mr. Tshamba was sworn to combat.

If Mr. Tshamba had not drawn his weapon, or had shown Mr. Brown his badge, or had called for backup when he felt intimidated by the physically larger Mr. Brown, or hadn't carried his gun into the bar on the fatal evening, what Judge Hargadon called a "truly tragic" crime might never have happened. "If you'd done any of those things," Judge Hargadon observed, "we would not be here today."

Mr. Tshamba's conviction and sentencing should prompt Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III to take another look at the department's policies on when officers should carry their weapons. Mr. Tshamba was involved in a 2005 incident where he apparently fired his weapon while inebriated, and alcohol was also likely a factor in the Brown shooting. Current policy says officers should carry their weapons even when off duty, but alcohol and firearms can be a dangerous combination. Certainly, the likelihood is that Mr. Brown might still be alive today — and Mr. Tshamba wouldn't be heading off to prison — if the officer had simply left his gun at home that night.




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