A police trial board today recommended the dismissal of a detective who shot and paralyzed an unarmed black youth here in a highly publicized incident that exacerbated what was already an uneasy relationship between the police and this city's large black community.
The trial board recommendation -- which will not take effect unless approved by Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau -- may have defused what some black leaders saw as a situation of mounting racial tension, according to Emmett Burns, the NAACP's regional director here.
Another black leader, Robert Cheeks, agreed that the ruling "neutralized this incident," but he added, "It would be dangerous to delude ourselves and say everybody is going home happy."
The incident involved the shooting on March 20 of Ja-Wan McGee, 17, who said he had gone with a friend to a carryout shop near his home in the Claremont housing project to buy two sodas and some snacks.
Det. Stephen McCown, who was off duty at the time and picking up a pizza, testified this week at the police hearing that he noticed the two youths "peeping inside" the shop several times but not entering, and thought it was possible they were "casing the establishment for a robbery."
He also testified he thought it was possible they were waiting for several customers to leave, but as the shop emptied and the youths still did not enter, he became "convinced they were about to commit some type of criminal activity."
When the youths entered the store, McCown testified, he saw one of them thrust his hand into "his waistband" and "in between his finger and thumb I could see metal."
According to testimony, McCown, without warning, fired three times using a gun in his raincoat pocket and hitting McGee once in the back, paralyzing him from the chest down.
The metal McCown saw turned out to be a black-and-silver cigarette lighter. McGee was not armed.
Though testimony varied on the location of the lighter at the time of the shooting, McGee testified that he was putting his hand, not in his waistband, but in his pocket to get money for his purchase.
The trial board -- made up of four high-ranking police officers and one detective -- found McCown guilty of four administrative charges, including improperly using his gun.
Today, the board recommended the severest punishment at its disposal -- McCown's dismissal from the police force on which he has served for 10 years.
But the decision must be reviewed by Commissioner Pomerleau, who may alter it in any way, including overturning the finding of guilt. Pomerleau is likely to decide the case within a week.
Though McCown's dismissal was the recommendation black leaders and neighborhood organizers had been urging, the trial board's decision does not lay to rest the controversy over the shooting.
"Would McCown have shot as quickly if it was a white youth? The answer is no," said Cheeks, who heads the Baltimore Welfare Rights Organization. "That's what people on the street believe. (If McGee were white) McCown would not have felt as threatened."
Police spokesman Dennis Hill, however, said department officials "deny it was a racial incident. It's a tragedy. A young fellow, shot and paralyzed. That's tragic."
Indeed, the issue of racism never was raised at the three-day police board proceeding, and Hill said that despite what some black leaders perceive as mounting racial tension, "we didn't sense any danger of a civil disturbance" because of the case.
Cheeks said that incidents like "this thing with Ja-Wan" happen because of police officers' conditioning "as cowboys . . . going out to face the enemy," because of officers' lack of preparation and the fact that few of them live in the black community.
Cheeks said that the biracial group formed because of the McGee incident still will press for criminal prosecution of McCown. The city's chief prosecutor announced last April that his office would not bring charges against McCowan because the detective acted without criminal intent.
Burns, of the NAACP, also has called for an FBI investigation into possible civil rights violations in the case. McGee and his family have filed a $15 million damage suit against McCown and the police department for allegedly negligent training and civil rights violations.
Cheeks said that as he sat at the hearing this week he realized that "people want to say these are the good guys and these are the bad guys, but it's not that simple.
"Ja-Wan was definitely a victim, but McCown is a victim of the same system. The police department was on trial . . . and still is on trial. McCown just took the rap."