Gary Sommers is about as masculine a guy as you can find. His living room is decorated with heavy brown-leather furniture and mounted deer heads. His phone case is camouflage. Square-jawed and mustached, he doesn’t choke up about much.
But on Sunday, a phone call brought him back to the worst moment in his life, and the emotions that usually simmer beneath his gruff exterior started to roil.
The veteran cop had been watching NASCAR that afternoon when news broke that a Prince George’s County police officer had been critically wounded in a firefight near a police station. Two hours later, an old law enforcement pal called Sommers to share a detail that wouldn’t become public until the next day: The officer, Jacai Colson, who died of his injuries, had been shot by another cop.
Sommers didn’t know Colson. And he didn’t know the officer who authorities say mistook Colson — who had been off-duty and in street clothes — for a suspect in a chaotic moment and shot him. But he did know what that officer was going through. Sommers had been there.
Twenty-seven years ago, on a drug raid conducted by an elite special operations team with the same county police department, Sommers had shot and killed his best friend, a fellow squad member named Mark Murphy. In the days afterward, one of the few people who could reach Sommers, locked away in private torment, was another officer who had also accidentally killed another cop.
And now Sommers was being asked by his friend to do the same thing for the officer who had killed Colson — just as he has done for cops across the country who have suddenly found themselves at the center of unfathomable circumstances.
Just tell me where and when, he said.
Sommers, Colson’s killer and the others to whom Sommers has sent letters belong to a very small fraternity of police officers who have taken another cop’s life. The circumstances vary — a training exercise gone wrong, a firearm accident, a case of mistaken identity.
Between 1987 and 2014, 79 police officers were killed by another officer, according to FBI crime data. Many of these incidents — 65 of them — were classified as “accidental shootings” that resulted from “crossfires, mistaken identities, firearm mishaps.”
In 2009, researchers analyzed the 26 instances in which officers mistook another cop for a “dangerous criminal” between 1981 and 2009 and then killed him or her. They found that nearly all of those confrontations involved uniformed officers and another cop who entered the scene in plainclothes, off-duty or undercover. The shootings, researchers learned, can “polarize entire police departments” as officers try to reconcile what happened, laying bare the “deepest of regrets.”
Two police psychologists said in interviews that the mental trauma inflicted on the officer who pulls the trigger can be devastating. Some quit the profession altogether. Others, unable to continue in the same department, leave the jurisdiction.
“They judge their behavior on the knowledge they currently have” rather than what they had at the moment of the shooting, said Michael Finegan, lead psychologist with the Maryland State Police. “And when they do that, they experience profound remorse and blame themselves.”
One of the few things that bring consolation to these police officers is helping others going through the same experience, said Harvey Goldstein, a former psychologist with the Prince George’s County Police. Goldstein learned that lesson decades ago when he first started counseling officers who had killed another cop.
One was a member of the U.S. Capitol Police’s SWAT team. During a training exercise in 1984, John Gott accidentally shot another SWAT team member and close friend in the lower back, killing him.
The aftermath can be especially cruel for highly trained marksmen such as Gott, the psychologist said. Such a grievous professional error, he said, can make officers question their purpose in life. Some officers, Goldstein has found, find strength in offering support to others going through the same thing.
So, four years later, the day after Sommers had killed his best friend in a drug raid gone wrong, Gott picked up the phone.
The son of a World War II paratrooper and brother to a Green Beret, Sommers had always wanted to be a cop. A beating by bullies in his early teens only cemented the calling he felt to protect the vulnerable. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was on the Prince George’s police force, and, 11 years later, in 1984, he made it onto the elite special operations unit.
Sommers soon met another officer on the squad, Mark Murphy, who came to the Washington area hoping to eventually land a job with the FBI. The two quickly became friends. They looked so similar — tall, lean, mustached — that people sometimes mistook them for brothers, and officers called them “Frick and Frack.” They ran together, partied together, took vacations together. Talked women, hunting, sports and children together. One year, they participated as a team in the International Sniper Competition at Fort Meade in Maryland — and took third place.
“The first picture of them that I see [when thinking of them] is the two of them in the gym,” said William Hogewood, who was on the special operations unit with Sommers and Murphy. “Socially, they did a lot of things together.”
It was the height of the war on drugs and the crack epidemic. As members of a small team executing seizure warrants, Sommers and Murphy played central roles. Each of the six men in their unit was assigned a number to designate their order of entry into suspected drug houses.
Murphy was No. 1; he ran up to the entrance and used a hydraulic jack to crack open the door. Sommers was No. 2; he carried an MP5 submachine gun and stood over Murphy in case Murphy came under fire. Working like this, Sommers estimates they burst through between 300 and 350 doors.
On the night of Aug. 31, 1988, they prepared to execute a raid on 64th Avenue in Riverdale. They had been told that the Jamaican drug dealers inside were probably heavily armed.
Murphy kneeled down to apply the jack, Sommers said. “I’m above him with a submachine gun to protect him when the door flies open and — There’s the suspect! There’s the suspect! — and I’m his protection,” he said. Murphy, however, saw something Sommers said he didn’t: The suspect didn’t have a gun. So just as Sommers started to shoot, Murphy stood to presumably tackle the man. Instead, Murphy entered the line of fire and was killed.
When he realized what he had done, Sommers was shattered. He said the only reason he “didn’t eat my gun” was because of his wife and three young children. “It would have been so easy, with the shame and the sorrow and the hurt,” he said.
Instead, he went to the hospital with Murphy. The rest of the unit was gathered there. “I saw him there at the hospital,” said William Lowry, the commander of the special operations unit. “It’s hard to describe the look on Gary’s face. You could probably describe it as vacant.”
He met with Goldstein, the psychologist. “He . . . told me, ‘We will get through this,’ ” Sommers would later testify at a congressional hearing on police stress in May 1991.
Goldstein told Sommers he wasn’t alone. There was John Gott. The next day, as the two men talked, Sommers confided that he wasn’t sure what to do about the funeral. Should he go? Gott told him he shouldn’t just go to the funeral — he should be one of the pallbearers.
And so that’s what Sommers did.
George H.W. Bush, who knew Murphy through a security detail he had worked for him, attended Murphy’s viewing. The tragedy stuck with Bush for days, as he wrote in a letter he sent to Sommers. He said it made him think of a combat mission he had piloted 44 years earlier.
“I had two crewman — both were killed,” he wrote. “I survived. . . . I was plagued by the death of my comrades. I felt physically sick. I cried a lot. My body literally ached. Prayer helped. The reactions of the families helped. Time — just the passage of time — helped.”
These things were both true and not true for Sommers. His oldest son, then 7, was furious because Sommers and his wife were rarely home after Murphy’s death. His middle son, then 5, had been close to Murphy and was “livid that I had killed Mark,” Sommers told Congress. The youngest, just 3 at the time of the incident, only asked about it two years later: “ ‘Daddy, why did you kill Mr. Mark?’ ” And finally, after supporting Sommers for three years, his wife, who has since died of cancer, began to unravel.
But Sommers said that Murphy’s family seemed less angry. Murphy’s father, Sommers said, stayed with him during Police Week, when families and officers gather in Washington to honor fallen officers.
Murphy’s family declined to be interviewed. Colson’s death “hit home to them, and it’s not an easy thing to discuss,” family spokesman Crystal Wright said.
Sommers never did another drug raid. Instead, he became an instructor on the firing range, first with the Prince George’s County Police and later with the Montgomery County Police, a position he still holds. He also started reaching out to officers who had killed one of their own. There was a Pennsylvania officer who he said forgot to take a bullet out of the chamber when teaching a class and accidentally killed an officer in the front row. There was the Florida cop who mistakenly shot a pal while cleaning his gun.
And now, there’s the officer who killed Colson.
On Monday afternoon, Sommers arrived at what he describes as “our church.” “It’s where we grieve,” Sommers said. “It’s where we celebrate.”
At the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Upper Marlboro, he met the officer involved in Colson’s death. Sitting in the lounge, Sommers said he saw himself in the cop. He recognized that “dazed” look. “It’s like you’re processing in your head, ‘Did this happen? Or is it a dream?’ ”
Sommers did most of the talking. He told him his story. About the friendship he had with the man he killed. About the support he received from the officer community, and how he came out on the other side. The officer, Sommers said, must know he’s not alone.
The next day, sitting beneath the collection of deer heads and mounted ducks in his living room, Sommers sounded hopeful as he described the meeting. “He is a strong-willed, good officer,” Sommers said. “I think he’ll do well.”
He paused. “I hope he will.”