The death of Korryn Gaines after a seven-hour standoff with Baltimore County police at her Randallstown apartment poses a real challenge to a department that has made pointed efforts during the last two years to prevent the kind of racial tension between law enforcement and the community that has boiled over nationwide. Thankfully, the protests that have followed her fatal shooting by a county officer have been peaceful, but they are not going away, and they are not confined to those who share Gaines' extreme views.
The questions posed to the department this week by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, centering on police's evolving accounts of what happened that day and the department's decision to withhold the name of the officer who fired the fatal shots, are entirely legitimate. In general, the department has been quick to release information about this case as it is gathered, erring on the side of providing details immediately even if they might later be revised by subsequent investigation. That's as it should be. But the unique nature of this case requires a new level of transparency.
Gaines death has been a polarizing event. On one extreme are those who point to Gaines' anti-police and anti-government rhetoric — her insistence to police at an earlier traffic stop that "you will have to murder me" and her instruction to her young son, "You fight them" — not to mention her willingness to repeatedly point a shotgun at officers as proof that she all but asked to be killed. At the other extreme are those who urged her through social media not to back down in her confrontation with police and who see her death as ultimate proof of her views. And in the middle are those who simply wonder whether anything could have been done differently to prevent a warrant service for traffic violations from resulting in a woman dead and a young boy injured by gunfire.
Count us in that last camp. We appreciate that police were in a difficult situation once they encountered a woman sitting on the floor of her apartment with a shotgun and a 5-year-old child. Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson has said she acted erratically throughout the standoff and that before the exchange of gunfire, she raised the gun to the ready position and threatened to kill the officers if they did not leave. But many questions remain.
•Gaines reportedly pointed her weapon at officers repeatedly throughout the confrontation. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has asked, what was different about the last time that it prompted one of the officers to open fire?
•How much did the officers who knocked on Gaines' door know about her previous traffic stop? Might a warrant service have been handled differently, given what now seem to be her self-fulfilling prophecies about being killed by police?
•Gaines' mother has said she was on the scene during the standoff but was not allowed to speak with her daughter. Does that comport with best practices in barricade situations?
•The NAACP Legal Defense Fund asked about "varying reports" about whether there were audiotapes of the interactions between police and Gaines. Chief Johnson had initially indicated that tapes were being transcribed, but the department says it turns out there were no recordings. Why not?
•Police say they asked Facebook to shut down Gaines' page and her Instagram account during the standoff because her followers were encouraging her not to surrender, but critics point out that doing so also eliminated the possibility of a video record of the final, fatal moments of the confrontation. (The officers involved were not wearing body cameras.) What effect did the shut-down of the page have on the negotiations? Did it help or hurt? What policies will the police follow in future such situations?
•When will the name of the officer who fired at Gaines be released? Typically, the department does so within about two days of a shooting, but it has not this time, citing an unprecedented number of threats from the public. We appreciate the need to protect the officer's safety, but we also worry about damage to transparency, fairness and consistency.
Given the national tension over the use of force by police against African Americans and Gaines' outspoken views on the subject, this case has the potential for dangerous reverberations and every effort should be made to explain its outcome.
Per normal procedure, homicide detectives are investigating the shooting and will forward a report to Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger so he can determine whether charges are appropriate. We can expect those findings to be made public, but the range of questions about Gaines' death goes well beyond whether it may have been a criminal act.
An internal police panel will conduct its own inquiry into whether the shooting itself conformed with department policies and procedures, and a third, administrative review will take a broader look at the incident. The department needs to report its findings as completely as possible — not just to illuminate the difficulties the situation presented to officers but also to demonstrate its willingness to learn from it. That is the only way to put this case to rest.