Leniency in Fairfax

Saturday, March 25, 2006

THE FAIRFAX COUNTY police officer who shot and killed Salvatore J. Culosi in the course of a routine arrest in January did so accidentally; about that there is no argument. We believe it when the county's top prosecutor, Robert F. Horan Jr., says that the officer is "as shattered by this as any good police officer should be." But Mr. Horan is wrong not to press charges against the officer. His decision reinforces the notion that prosecutors give special treatment to police officers who err, no matter how disastrous the consequences.

Mr. Culosi, 37, was shot while being arrested on suspicion of being a sports bookmaker. An optometrist, he had no criminal record and owned no firearms. An undercover detecti ve had been placing bets with him for several months and presumably knew that Mr. Culosi presented no particular threat of violence. Still, the Fairfax police sent a SWAT team to make the arrest -- a deployment of excessive force. It was one of the SWAT officers, Deval V. Bullock, who shot Mr. Culosi.

Mr. Bullock offered no explanation for how or why he pulled the trigger. By his extensive training and experience -- Mr. Bullock, 40, is a 17-year veteran of the police force -- he knew that he should not have had his finger on the trigger. Indeed, he knew he should not have even aimed his gun at anyone during a routine arrest. Despite that knowledge, he unaccountably pointed his weapon at Mr. Culosi, who, standing on the street in front of his suburban townhouse, was offering no resistance. And he pulled the trigger.

If a civilian armed with a handgun had behaved in a similarly negligent fashion and killed someone, it is almost inconceivable that prosecutors would have dropped the matter. At the least Mr. Horan should have referred Mr. Culosi's case to a grand jury to decide whether the circumstances merited a charge of involuntary manslaughter against Mr. Bullock.

Mr. Horan has been the top prosecutor in Fairfax since Lyndon B. Johnson was president, but he has never prosecuted a police officer for wrongfully shooting a citizen. He's had his chances. In 2000 he closed the books on a police officer who fired 16 shots at an innocent Howard University student, Prince C. Jones Jr., killing him. In the case of Mr. Culosi, who paid the ultimate price for Mr. Bullock's error, justice is important. So is the appearance of justice, if people are to maintain their confidence in the justice system.

The police have said they were waiting for Mr. Horan's determination to complete their internal investigation into Mr. Bullock's shooting of Mr. Culosi. That investigation must be serious and thorough, and the results should be made public. So should the outcome of an internal review of police procedures, especially the routine use of SWAT teams to carry out arrests without apparent regard for the particulars of a given case or suspect.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company