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  •   A 'Most Difficult Decision' Is Dead Wrong

    By Paul Duggan and Steve Vogel
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, February 9, 1995; Page A1

    It was just past 11:30 Tuesday night, about 10 minutes into his patrol shift, when D.C. police Officer Michael A. Baker suddenly faced the most serious choice anyone in his profession can be called on to make. Confronting an armed man on a Southeast Washington street corner, Baker drew his 9mm Glock semiautomatic and ordered the suspect to put down his weapon. But the man with the gun did not obey.

    Baker's finger tensed on the Glock's trigger.

    "The choice is, you hesitate, and you or someone else may be dead – or you shoot, and you may end up killing an innocent person," said Susan Fain, a criminal justice professor at American University. "It's a horrible decision for police officers to make, absolutely the most difficult, instantaneous decision imaginable."

    At the dreary intersection of 25th Street and Good Hope Road SE, in the cold night air, Baker – a man lauded by his precinct commander as "an excellent officer, a guy you want with you in Southeast" – a 28-year-old officer in the fourth year of his career, made his split-second choice. And it turned out to be wrong.

    He killed an innocent man, a fellow officer, James M. McGee Jr., who was off duty and out of uniform – a 26-year-old officer with five years on the force who had just witnessed a robbery and was trying to arrest two suspects at gunpoint.

    "This is a tragic situation," Police Chief Fred Thomas said at a somber news conference yesterday morning, hours after McGee, shot twice, had been pronounced dead at D.C. General Hospital and Baker had been relieved of duty pending separate investigations by the police homicide and internal affairs units. However, "based on preliminary information," the chief said, he thinks Baker "had sufficient justification for firing his weapon under the circumstances" and that "all the officers involved attempted to do the very best professional job that they could."

    Baker has fired his weapon in the line of duty at least twice before, a rarity even in these violent times when many officers work entire careers without firing their weapons. In May, he was among three officers who traded gunfire with a fleeing robbery suspect armed with a semiautomatic rifle, critically wounding the suspect, police said. In November 1993, according to department records, Baker and several other officers fired at, but missed, a man who allegedly had tried to run down the officers with a stolen car.

    "Officer Baker is taking this very hard," said police Inspector Winston Robinson Jr., referring to Tuesday night's shooting. "I give [Baker] my condolences," said Robinson, commander of the department's crime-ridden 7th District, where Baker and McGee worked on different shifts. "He saw a dangerous situation, and he did what he had to do. You can second-guess it all you want."

    As for the two accused robbers, police yesterday charged them with felony murder in McGee's death, under the legal theory that the fatal shooting was a "foreseeable" result of the armed holdup they allegedly were committing.

    Counting McGee, three D.C. police officers have been fatally shot since late November and three others have been wounded, including two patrol officers who police think were attacked indiscriminately by a "cop stalker" who has yet to be caught. Despite those incidents, Thomas said, "the officers are not trigger-happy. They are not jumpy. They are just trying to protect themselves and the public."

    Noting that Baker is white and McGee was black, retired D.C. police officer Ronald Hampton, president of the 35,000-member National Black Police Association, said that if McGee had been a white man, "he wouldn't have got shot."

    "I knew right away – even before I saw the faces of the people involved – that the guy who got shot was black, because that's who we think criminals are," Hampton said. The shooting occurred in a predominantly black neighborhood, and more than 90 percent of the 50,000 suspects D.C. police arrest annually are African American males. Though Hampton has never met Baker, he said he thinks the officer would not have fired so quickly if the armed man he confronted had been white.

    Police said the incident began shortly after 11:30 p.m. at Pennsylvania and Minnesota avenues SE, where a taxicab driver picked up two men who asked to be taken to 23rd Street and Alabama Avenue SE. The passengers, at least one of whom had a pistol, robbed the driver of $40 during the ride, police said. At 25th Street and Good Hope Road SE, the driver jumped out of the cab and began wrestling with the two assailants.

    McGee, husband of a D.C. police officer and father of two small children, was leaving a carry-out restaurant near the intersection when he noticed the fight, police said. Drawing his pistol, he confronted the alleged robbers, Richard David Gibson and Rodney Garrett, both 28, of Southeast Washington. Garrett ran away, police said. Then, as McGee detained Gibson at gunpoint, Baker and his partner pulled up in a patrol car.

    Baker, apparently unsure of what was happening, ordered McGee to drop his gun, Thomas said at the news conference. However, Thomas said, "it would appear that Officer McGee started to turn" toward Baker without putting down the weapon.

    There is a hand gesture that D.C. police officers are trained to use when not in uniform to identify themselves to uniformed officers in such situations.

    Asked if McGee had made such a gesture or had verbally identified himself to Baker as a police officer, the chief said he was "not prepared to address that issue." But a high-ranking department official said McGee didn't make the gesture.

    Baker fired two shots, Thomas said. One 9mm slug hit McGee in the left arm; the other struck him behind the left shoulder. He collapsed in the street.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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