ON CHRISTMAS EVE, a man charged with stealing two hams apparently tried to escape from the Seat Pleasant police station, was shot in the head by a Prince George's County policeman and died two days later. Naturally, this incident has raised a number of sensitive questions in the county about police use of firearms in general and the officer's use of his gun in this particular case. Without passing judgement on the officer's conduct in this instance - a matter that is still under investigation - we can't help noticing that there does seem to be a need for tighter controls in the county.
The rules governing the powers of police use "deadly force" vary widely among the jurisdictions of Greater Washington. For example, according to regulations, a police officer in Prince George's does have authority to shoot a fleeing burglary suspect or to fire a warning shot to halt a suspect's flight. In Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties, as well as Alexandria and the District, the regulations don't permit this.
Another difference in Prince George's is that the county regulations include in their definition of a "violent type of crime," in which firearms may be discharged to capture a suspect, such crimes as burglary and arson along with murder and armed robbery. County police also are empowered to shoot "when necessary to prevent the escape or effect the capture of a felon or felony suspect who is attempting to or has escaped from a lawful place of confinement" - which happens to include a stationhouse - as long as the offense was a "violent crime" or the suspect "has endangered the lives of others during the process of his escape, or if the officer believes the escapee is a danger to the community and will cause grievous bodily injury to others. . . ."
When you add to all this the fact that "escape is a felony" under Maryland law, the regulations do demand some heavy judgement from individual officers in emergency situations. In other jurisdictions, there does seem to be some correlation between the stringency of the firearms regulations and the numbe of police shootings. In recent years there have been more shootings by Prince George's police officers than by those in other suburban jurisdictions.
Insofar as they do not place officers in undue jeopardy, the narrower rules governing deadly force are preferable. In Arlington, for example, police regulations allow officers to shoot only "in protection of your life or the life of anothe person." An officer under no circumstances "shall shoot at a person who is running away to avoid arrest." In the District, regulations allow shooting at a fleeing felon only when the suspect "has committed or threatens to committ an attack which could cause serious bodily injury or death." In Alexandria, police are warned against firing on people suspected of such crimes as grand larceny or burglary.
Ideally, the police and the people they work to protect would benefit from a some regional policy agreement on firearms use. But that is complicated by differences in state laws, among other things. In the meantime, however, the Prince George's police department - which has had enough problems already with its reputation for sensitivity - should consider tighter restraints on the awesome power of life and death that each of its officer possesses.