The Baltimore Police Department on Wednesday released surveillance camera footage of the January police shooting outside a downtown club that killed two people, including a plainclothes officer.
The video shows that the incident lasted mere seconds. The fracas appears to begin with a man throwing a punch, and within about eight seconds a crowd is seen dispersing in different directions from the Select Lounge parking lot.
A young woman lies on the ground, struck by an errant bullet, while a man stumbles and falls to the ground and crawls behind a car. The camera pans away as an officer fires several shots -- with puffs of smoke from the bullets hitting the ground -- then pans back to reveal Officer William H. Torbit Jr. lying on the ground. His arms briefly flail before he becomes motionless.
The next image is of an officer putting his hands on his head as he stands over Torbit, as he apparently comes to realize that one of their colleagues has been shot.
Last week, State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein concluded a seven-month investigation by declining to press charges against any of the officers or civilians involved in the Jan. 9 incident. He said at a news conference that the officers had a reasonable fear of imminent injury or death from Torbit, who is believed to have fatally shot at 22-year-old Sean Gamble during the melee. Four officers returned fire, unaware that Torbit was an on-duty officer working in plainclothes.
Bernstein, who did not take the case before a grand jury, said the officers made a tragic mistake, and "people are not charged criminally with making mistakes."
Representatives from the Torbit family could not be reached for comment, but an attorney for the Gamble family, Michael Paul Smith, said the video raises troubling questions. Smith said it shows Torbit pushing Gamble, and that Gamble is shot as he is "moving away from the commotion."
"It's clear from the video that Sean Gamble was leaving the area of the altercation at the time he was shot," Smith said. He said the family, which filed suit against the city in late June to obtain the video and other documents, is conducting its own investigation.
Asked about the family's reaction to Bernstein's decision last week, Smith said: "They're disappointed at that, at least at this juncture, nobody has been held accountable for what happened that night."
Authorities did not immediately release the video after the investigation was concluded last week. Police had said they wanted to first screen the video for the families of Torbit and Gamble.
Copies were distributed to the attorneys for the two families, but Bernstein said during a radio appearance Wednesday that he could not give a timetable for the public release of the video. Police officials said late Wednesday that a Friday release was likely.
But hours later, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III ordered the immediate release of the video. Hundreds of documents related to the investigation are also expected to be released to the public now that the investigation is complete.
The video may not satisfy critics, who say the officers acted recklessly in discharging a total of 42 shots, including eight fired by Torbit himself. The video was recorded from a pole camera one block away from the North Paca Street club at West Franklin and Eutaw streets and appears to be controlled by an operator. It captures the incident in full, yet much of the specific interactions among police and civilians are difficult to distinguish amid the chaos.
Officials say the case was buttressed, however, by dozens of interviews with witnesses.
The video shows a heavy police presence at the scene before the shooting. Bernstein said last week that Torbit was trying to disperse an unruly crowd when Gamble directed a comment at him, leading to an argument and then punches being thrown.
After a friend of Gamble's punched Torbit in the head, they fell to the ground and others "joined in the fracas" and kicked and punched Torbit, he said.
Bernstein said Officer Harry Pawley was closest to Torbit and used pepper spray, which dispersed the crowd. He then saw Torbit lying on the ground firing his weapon. Pawley fired at Torbit, and the other officers followed suit.
While the fight involving Gamble and Torbit is brief and largely obscured, the aftermath is clear. Officers, who take a few moments to assess the situation after the shooting, can be seen carrying Torbit from the parking lot, where he was taken to the back seat of a car and driven to a hospital.
A friend of one of the injured bystanders can be seen quickly ripping off her shirt and wrapping it around her friend, and the camera follows them as they walk to a vehicle parked below the pole camera
A panel of law enforcement experts is continuing its review of the shooting, and Rawlings-Blake has indicated that she is pushing them to wrap up their work.
The shooting was the first "friendly fire" death involving on-duty officers in the city in more than 80 years.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service