A Tragedy of Errors

Saturday, January 20, 2007

"OUR GOAL is to be as open and transparent as possible," Fairfax County Police Chief David M. Rohrer said last week as he released a report on the fatal police shooting a year ago of an unarmed, nonthreatening suspect. The report confesses to "gaps in decision-making guidelines" and questionable actions in what should have been a routine arrest of Salvatore J. Culosi, a 37-year-old optometrist suspected of being a sports bookmaker.

But the story still merits more explanation. In the report the police -- for the first time -- officially acknowledge the identity of the shooter: Officer Deval V. Bullock, a SWAT unit member with 17 years' experience. So why was the SWAT unit called in to help round up a man who had been taking bets from the same undercover detective for months -- and who had no criminal record? Exactly how did Officer Bullock's finger wind up on the trigger of his .45-caliber pistol, which fired a single deadly round into Mr. Culosi's chest?

Chief Rohrer's report does acknowledge what should have been obvious all along: that SWAT team power was unnecessary. Risk assessment policies have been inconsistent and are being revised, the report says. Good, because even Officer Bullock himself "was not comfortable with the original plan and challenged it prior to the briefing," the report notes.

As for the shooting, the report concludes that "based on the preponderance of the evidence," an "involuntary muscle contraction" caused Officer Bullock's finger to slip down to the trigger and fire the shot. The report says Officer Bullock's vehicle door apparently bumped his left side as he was climbing out, causing his right side to flinch involuntarily. Even if you buy this finding -- and medical experts say it can happen -- Mr. Culosi never should have been placed in a situation where this could happen.

The chief's report does not state what discipline was imposed on Officer Bullock. But what is passing for punishment so far is little more than a frown and a wink. As reported by The Post's Tom Jackman, a police internal affairs report shown to this newspaper recommended that Officer Bullock be suspended for 120 hours without pay and transferred out of the SWAT unit. On Jan. 8, sources say, the chief imposed both the suspension and the transfer. How tough is that?

The chief prosecutor in Fairfax, Robert F. Horan Jr. -- who has never prosecuted a police officer for wrongfully shooting a citizen -- remained true to the force, swiftly declining to prosecute Officer Bullock or even to refer the case to a grand jury. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has yet to release any results of its inquiry. So the case is not closed, nor should it be. Public confidence in the justice system still hangs in the balance.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company