WITHIN A MONTH, policemen in Prince George's County have fatally shot two unarmed suspects: a man charged with stealing two hams, who was apparently trying to escape from the Seat Pleasant police station, and another man who was climbing out of a restaurant window after an apparent break-in and who reportedly moved his right shoulder after being ordered to "freeze." You don't need to pass judgment on the officers' conduct in these particular instances to be pleased that County Executive Winfield Kelly and Police Chief John W. Rhoads are moving to put tighter controls on police use of firearms.
When news of the chief's guidelines was reported to a rollcall of officers in Seat Pleasant the other evening, most of the men reportedly greeted the announcement with curses and catcalls. And some anonymous officers apparently are volunteering dire forecasts about morale among the troops. Also, Laney Hester, president of the county Fraternal Order of Police, has concluded that the new regulations reflect political concerns. "It's election year," he said, "and Winfield Kelly doesn't want to alienate voters. I think this is designed to appease a vocal minority. It's a response to pressure from the community."
Is there something wrong with responding to pressure from a community on a subject such as this one - a community the force is meant to serve and protect? After all, the chief is by no means ordering officers to let themselves be killed rather shoot in self defense. "All officers may be sure . . . that the order will be drafted in such a way that their lives and the lives of others will not be exposed to further jeopardy," he says. The new guidelines would prohibit the use of deadly force unless a violent-crime suspect posed a "clear and present danger" of serious injury or death to the police officers or someone else during a chase or arrest.
As outlined, the new rules appear to be along the lines of regulations already in effect in other jurisdictions of Greater Washington. These other police departments seem to have been able to accommodate controls on the use of their guns - and surely the best officers in Prince George's should be able to operate just as efficiently under similar reasonable restraints.