By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 25, 2006; B01
Fairfax County police officials want to suspend for three weeks without pay the officer who accidentally shot and killed Salvatore J. Culosi, an unarmed optometrist being investigated for sports gambling, according to an internal affairs report.
The punishment recommended for Officer Deval V. Bullock in the shooting, which occurred in January, has outraged fellow officers, who said it is too harsh, and Culosi's family, who said Bullock should never again be employed in law enforcement.
"Any sanction short of this we consider to be nothing more than permission to go out once again and have the opportunity to unjustly kill," Culosi's parents, Salvatore and Anita Culosi, said in a statement.
Fairfax officers said the proposed suspension would go far beyond what is typically imposed for an accidental shooting. "The discipline is very disproportionate to prior [shooting] cases," said Officer Marshall Thielen, president of the Fairfax police officers union. "This was a case where an officer was trying to do everything right, with good intentions. I feel the punishment may be politically motivated because of all the media attention" over the case.
Bullock, through his attorney, declined to comment. He is assigned to administrative duties while he appeals the possible suspension. Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer declined to comment because the case is a personnel matter and is pending.
The internal affairs report, shown to The Washington Post, is the first explanation of how Bullock, an experienced and highly trained tactical officer, could accidentally shoot a man who was not challenging him, trying to escape or suspected of being armed.
On the night of Jan. 24, the report says, Bullock was getting out of his vehicle when he was bumped on his left side by the vehicle's door, causing his right hand to "involuntarily make a fist and depress the trigger" of his .45-caliber handgun.
Culosi, 37, was standing outside an undercover police vehicle, which was parked behind his townhouse in the Fair Oaks area. After Culosi was alleged to have paid the undercover officer, who was investigating accusations that he was a sports bookmaker, the officer signaled for two SWAT officers, including Bullock, to make the arrest.
Instead, Bullock, 40, fired one shot into Culosi's side, killing him almost instantly.
Although police deemed Bullock's actions accidental, the internal affairs report by Maj. Thomas Ryan says Bullock rushed to get out of his vehicle and arrest Culosi. "This hurried movement caused you to lose sight of your surroundings," Ryan wrote, "and compromised the safety of your weapon while the muzzle was pointed in the direction of Mr. Culosi."
Ryan recommended that Bullock, a 17-year veteran with no previous disciplinary record, be suspended for 120 hours and transferred out of the SWAT unit.
In their statement last night, Culosi's parents accused Fairfax police of not updating them on the 10-month investigation and of not altering "policies that allow and support the use of deadly force where it is clearly not justified. . . . we fear for other families and the residents and citizens of Fairfax County."
But Thielen, union attorney Edward J. Nuttall and numerous officers said an oral or written reprimand is typically given when a Fairfax officer accidentally shoots someone.
"It is way off the charts," Nuttall said of the proposed suspension. An officer who accidentally shot another Fairfax officer in the chest during a drug deal in 2000, wounding the officer, received a written reprimand, police officers said.
"Everybody feels for the Culosi family," Nuttall said. "But nothing the department or the government can do will satisfy the family. So you can't use that as a measuring stick for what should be imposed in this case."
Fairfax officers said they were even more stunned when, two days before the decision was handed down, Rohrer, the police chief, changed the department's policy on appealing such a decision.
Previously, an officer recommended for suspension or termination could appeal to a trial board of three officers. In 2002, then-Chief J. Thomas Manger signed a general order saying that the board's decision on such appeals would be binding even though state law says such boards are advisory. The trial board can raise, reduce or maintain the proposed discipline. But on Aug. 8, Rohrer ordered that the trial board's decisions would be advisory to him and that he would have the final say. On Aug. 10, the ruling on Bullock was issued.
Rohrer declined to discuss the policy change. Lt. Richard J. Perez, a police spokesman, said the change was made "to bring the policy into compliance with state law" and to "afford the chief of police a say in [disciplinary] matters" as opposed to the trial board issuing the final ruling. Perez said that the chief had discussed the policy change for more than a year and that its timing was unrelated to the Bullock case.
"There's no way you can look at this as being a coincidence, being a couple days apart," Thielen said. Officers can also appeal a proposed disciplinary action to the county's civil service commission, whose decision is binding, or directly to the chief. But officers prefer a trial board because they "are judged by officers who've used deadly force, who understand the decision-making process" and the relevant law, Thielen said.
According to the internal report in the Culosi case, Bullock was a passenger in a vehicle driven by another SWAT officer, and the two planned to arrest Culosi as he sat inside an undercover officer's vehicle. But when the arrest signal was given, Culosi was outside the vehicle. Bullock told investigators that Culosi's garage was open and that Culosi "began to exhibit the characteristics of someone who was going to run," Ryan wrote.
Bullock reported that he hurried out of his vehicle and pushed his door open hard. The door opened fully and bounced back, striking Bullock on the left side as he climbed out with his gun in his right hand, Ryan said.
Fairfax investigators consulted Roger M. Enoka, a physiology professor at the University of Colorado and expert in biomechanics. "Enoka concluded," Ryan wrote in a report to Bullock, "that the force of the door striking your left side caused you to involuntarily make a fist and depress the trigger." Enoka also theorized that "the involuntary placement of your finger on the trigger was probably due to a reflex-like response, and that the involuntary depression of the trigger was most likely the result of a sympathetic contraction."
Although Ryan concluded that the shooting was accidental, he wrote that "a death occurred as a result of your actions and the discipline in this case certainly needs to reflect this."