Last weekend's fatal shooting of a plainclothes Baltimore police officer by colleagues who mistook him for an assailant has taught a stunned force the same hard lesson learned by other agencies whose officers made similar deadly mistakes, says the Baltimore Sun. In 27 cases across the U.S. since 1980 in which police officers were mistakenly killed by other officers, all but one involved a victim who was not in uniform. Among them was last Sunday's shooting of William Torbit, an eight-year veteran of the Baltimore police force who was killed by fellow officers while trying to break up a rowdy crowd outside a club.
In most cases, police in other cities responded to the tragedies by ordering plainclothes officers back into uniform — as Baltimore did as an interim fix while reviews are under way — or to wear color-coded bandanas or jackets. As in the Torbit killing, typically the victim was black. A commission appointed by New York Gov. David Paterson after two off-duty officers were killed by friendly fire in 2009 came to a startling conclusion: While fatalities are rare, tense encounters between uniformed and plainclothes officers are routine around the nation. “In almost every case of police-on-police shootings, it almost always involves an officer [out of uniform] with a gun drawn,” said Christopher Stone of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who chaired the commission. “Research with officers of every race shows that you're faster to make the judgment that a black man with a gun in plainclothes is a criminal, not a police officer.”