Police actions questioned in Germantown shooting

January 3, 2008 3:10:39 PM PST
For the second year in a row, city officials are being asked how police officers responding to celebratory New Year's Eve gunfire ended up shooting innocent bystanders.

This year, police chasing an armed reveler shot into a house filled with partygoers, leaving one man in a coma, a second wounded and a 9-year-old boy with a graze wound to the chest.

A year ago, police fatally shot a man in the back of the head as he tried to flee when neighbors started shooting guns into the air.

The shootings early Tuesday morning came as Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson ends a six-year tenure marked by public concern about gun violence and the police response to it.

Johnson has repeatedly been asked to answer questions about the department's use of deadly force, including two months ago when officers killed a distraught teenager wielding a clothes iron. City police fatally shot at least 16 people in 2007 and 20 the year before.

"It seems that there's too much of a policy to shoot first and worry about the outcome later," lawyer Bruce Ginsburg said Thursday. "It puts everybody in the city in danger."

Johnson, who retires Friday after 43 years with the department, defended his officers while promising an investigation of the New Year's Eve shootings. He also said the department's training is sufficient.

"It's hard for you to say when an officer has a gun pointed at him, is he reacting too fast? We had one (officer) killed, we had six others who were shot" this year, Johnson said Thursday at his final news conference.

He said that endangered officers frequently resolve situations without firing their weapons. But they have only a split-second to make a decision.

"When you have an officer (with) a gun pointed at him, how he is going to react is how he reacts," he said. "When you have a door, he doesn't know who's behind the door."

Police acknowledged this week that they arrested an innocent partygoer early Tuesday morning, based on his resemblance to the suspect who they say fired shots in the air, pointed his weapon at police and ran toward the string of row homes. Authorities later charged a 21-year-old man, who was apparently shot in the arm but did not seek treatment.

The party's host, Clinton Rogers, 30, told reporters bullets started flying through the front door at him, friends and relatives just after midnight. Parents jumped in front of their children and two men who were shot ran upstairs, trailing blood.

The spray of bullets left Abebe Isaac, 33, in a medically induced coma after he was shot in the face. Meanwhile, Michael Johnson, 32, remains stable after being shot in the side. Nyger Page, 9, treated and released after suffering the graze wound.

Ginsburg, the attorney, represents Page's family and also that of Bryan Jones, who was shot to death by police as 2007 arrived.

Jones, 20, had set out on foot in the waning moments of 2006 to retrieve a young nephew from a party and was fleeing gunfire when he was shot.

Police have said officers responding to a report of gunfire were fired at by people on a porch and that an officer fired at Jones when he saw him reaching for his waistband. Jones, however, had no weapon and no criminal history, Ginsburg said.

"Nothing was learned about the unnecessary death of a young man last year," Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg, who plans to file a wrongful death suit on behalf of Jones' family, said police have not released the name of the officer who shot Jones. The internal investigation into the case is still ongoing.

Police officials said Thursday that each officer goes through eight hours of related training each year, and that the training includes shooting practice, classroom time and interactive exercises.

Johnson's replacement as police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, has pledged to address the number of police shootings. Ramsey has noted that in his tenure as police chief of Washington, D.C., the number of such shootings fell by 77 percent.

Criminologist Sam Walker, who studies police accountability at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said officers should be well-versed in how to respond to expected situations such as the New Year's Eve shootings. He believes constant training is the key.

"That's a recurring problem, so the department should be addressing that," he said. "The most important thing I've learned in the last 10 years is how fragile police departments are in terms of these accountability issues. If you blink, or turn the other way, things will very quickly erode."