A Killing Without Cause

Thursday, November 30, 2006

FAIRFAX COUNTY police officer Deval V. Bullock is a good cop who made one disastrous mistake: Bumped by his own car door, he accidentally fired his weapon and killed an unarmed, nonviolent, non-threatening suspect during a routine arrest in January. The shooting of Salvatore J. Culosi, an optometrist under investigation for being a sports bookmaker, was unintentional. But it was also negligent; under the circumstances, Mr. Bullock should not have had his finger on the trigger, nor even aimed his weapon at Mr. Culosi. Now the Fairfax police department is recommending a slap on the wrist for Mr. Bullock -- three weeks without pay and his removal from the police SWAT team. The punishment is lenient, to say the least, but even so it is too much for the police union.

For months before this egregious shooting, an undercover police detective had been placing bets with Mr. Culosi, who had no criminal record; had never owned a firearm; and presented no threat of violence, flight or resisting arrest. It is still unclear, 10 months after the fact, why despite that profile police decided to arrest Mr. Culosi with a SWAT team, which is trained and equipped for use in dangerous situations. After Mr. Culosi's death, the police department said it would conduct a review of policies and procedures involving the use of such teams. But if there was such a review, its results have not been made public. One wonders if the SWAT team in Fairfax, lacking frequent opportunities to respond to situations involving imminent danger and threats, is deployed simply to give its officers something to do. If so, that's bad policy and bad policing.

Mr. Bullock, a 17-year veteran of the police force, was trained in firearms and tactics. He well knew that during a routine arrest, his finger should not have been on the trigger and his gun should not have been pointed at the suspect. So it is no real excuse that, in jumping from his car, the car door bounced back, striking him in the side and causing him to pull the trigger. Like people in other lines of work who make disastrous mistakes, Mr. Bullock should be held accountable for his actions, even though they were unintentional. The chief prosecutor in Fairfax, Robert F. Horan Jr., already declined to prosecute Mr. Bullock or refer the case to a grand jury, yet now police union officials howl that even a three-week suspension is unfair. It's not. It is in fact little more than symbolic discipline. But in such a case symbolism is important and well placed.

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