In a Split Second, a Life-or-Death Decision
ATF Agent Who Witnessed D.C. Shooting Faced a Tough Choice: Fire or Call for Backup

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bill Crummett had just spent hours organizing federal agents to investigate a fatal shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum when an unrelated burst of gunfire flashed before his eyes.

It happened June 10, hours after the museum violence, as Crummett's car was stopped at a light a few blocks north of the Capitol.

Two pedestrians in a crosswalk at First and M streets NW pulled out semiautomatic handguns and opened fire on a third man, who was wounded and scrambled for cover behind a sport-utility vehicle. The assailants then hid their weapons in their waistbands, leaving Crummett to make a split-second decision: Engage and risk a firefight or call for help.

Crummett, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, called for help and waited for backup. Meanwhile, he tailed the men, and eventually the weapons were recovered and one suspect was arrested. It was a trade-off: Innocent bystanders were safe, but a suspect got away.

Most law enforcement officers complete their careers without firing their weapons. But four times this month in the District, officers and agents faced the difficult decision of how to defuse a life-threatening situation.

Two of those episodes unfolded June 8. In the first, members of the Capital Area Regional Joint Fugitive Task Force tried to arrest Allen L. Haggins on a murder charge. But as they chased Haggins into a parking lot in the 600 block of L Street SE, he pulled a handgun, police said. Two officers shot and wounded him, and then Haggins, 38, fatally shot himself, authorities said.

That night, U.S. Park Police officers fatally shot a man while working on a federal task force in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast Washington. The shooting of Trey Joyner, 25, who police said had a gun, has sparked tension between police and residents, who have questioned the police conduct.

On June 10 at the Holocaust museum, after special police officer Stephen T. Johns was wounded, two of his fellow officers returned fire, shooting his alleged assailant, James W. von Brunn, 88, in the face.

And then there was the daylight attack witnessed by Crummett.

"Imagine watching this and being in a car strapped in by a seat belt. If one of them turns and draws down on the windshield, you're trapped," Crummett said. "There's a couple of things that I could do at that moment. It was more dangerous for me to try to take enforcement action. . . . The smartest thing to do was to follow them."

The incident offers a window into the range of options available to law enforcement officers facing potentially deadly circumstances.

Crummett decided not to risk the chance of escalating a gun battle at an intersection crowded with commuters and pedestrians. Instead, he called D.C. police, gave them a description of the suspects and began a low-key pursuit until help arrived.

To avoid alerting the men of his presence, Crummett did not use the lights or siren on his unmarked car. As they headed toward New York Avenue, Crummett kept one eye on cars and the other on the men. He watched them carefully hide the pistols in a back alley.

"Once they got rid of the guns, they weren't as nervous about things. They did chest bumps, congratulating one another," Crummett said. "It was like a high-five moment. I couldn't believe it."

Over a 10-minute period that seemed longer, Crummett said, he continued to follow the suspects near Florida Avenue and Quincy Place NW, where the men split up. One got into a gold car; Crummett flashed his lights and pulled the car over. But the man got out and fled.

Based on the description Crummett provided, police said, a D.C. officer found that suspect hiding on the back porch of a stranger's rowhouse. Police arrested Antonio Barber, 24, of the 1300 block of 14th Street NW, court documents show.

Barber was charged with assault with intent to kill. Police retraced the assailant's steps and recovered two handguns, officials said. The second suspect has not been found. It remains unclear why the victim, who was shot in the upper thigh, was targeted.

Crummett's action drew praise from D.C. police.

"He could have opted to shoot, but he didn't," said Inspector Michael Reese of the 1st Police District, which is investigating the case. "I think he used good sound judgment. He let his expertise come into play."

Even for a veteran such as Crummett, the experience was revealing.

"It just shows you how violent some subjects are. They strolled out, cranked out some rounds and they calmly walked away," Crummett said.

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