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Crime & Justiceby Fern Shen3:07 pmJan 10, 20130

Torbit family protests city handling of “friendly fire” case

An outside review should be conducted and criminal charges filed, family members say. Officers involved back on the street.

Above: A protest outside City Hall yesterday by the family and friends of police officer William H. Torbit Jr., slain in 2011 by fellow officers as he was trying to break up a fight outside a downtown club.

Yesterday, on the two-year anniversary of the shooting of Baltimore police officer William H. Torbit Jr. by fellow officers outside a downtown nightclub, family members held a protest to call for an independent investigation of the incident.

“There has still been no one held accountable, there have still been no arrests,” said Torbit’s sister, Venus Torbit, as she stood with a half dozen other supporters, placard in hand. They marched, at lunchtime in front of City Hall and police headquarters

“Take it to trial! If there were a trial and no one was found guilty we  could accept that. But at least we would know the city took it seriously,” said Tiffany Clark, another of Torbit’s sisters, speaking by phone with The Brew today.

Unruly crowd, massive police response

Torbit was on duty but not wearing his uniform on Jan. 9, 2011 when he was one of 30 officers who responded to help control an unruly crowd outside the Select Lounge on North Paca Street.

The department’s investigation found that Torbit and lounge patron Sean Gamble got into an altercation. Torbit, who appeared in videos to have been thrown to the ground  in the fighting, discharged his service weapon, killing Gamble, police investigators concluded.

Other officers returned fire, unaware that Torbit was a police officer too. When the shooting subsided, the  33-year-old Torbit, who had been on the force for eight years, was dead.

Family members dispute this version of the incident. “There is no evidence that my brother killed Sean Gamble,” Clark said by phone. She said the family also contends that a civilian who struck Torbit that night should have been charged.

But no criminal charges were filed against civilians or the officers. City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein decided there were insufficient grounds to take the case to a grand jury.

An Independent Review Board that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake formed to study the incident produced a 169-page report aimed at preventing another tragedy. They came up with 33 recommendations including developing a plan for responding to such situations and improving the dispatch system to better track where officers are.

Editorial writers likewise focused on fixes to prevent a recurrence, such as drastically cutting back on the use of non-uniform-wearing police officers. But the Torbit family is not ready to move on to lessons learned.

“We feel like it was unfair and unjust. . . like there was no real investigation,” Clark said. “One person, a school police officer, stood between them and my brother and told them not to shoot. Why did they shoot? We have so many unanswered questions.”

She noted that the four officers who fired during the incident declined to answer the review board’s questions, hampering the investigation. On advice of the union, they provided only brief memos.

“And now they’re back out on the street! They’re back on duty!” Clark said.

Disappointed in Mayor, Hopeful about Police Commissioner

City police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed that the officers are no longer on administrative leave and are back in active duty.

“I don’t have access to and can’t comment on what (if any) internal discipline the members received, because those are considered personnel actions and are protected from disclosure by statute,” Guglielmi added, returning a query via email.

Guglielmi was also asked which of the review board’s recommendations have been implemented.

“As of today, we have implemented the majority of the recommendations of the panel and are working on some of the longer term items,” he said.

The city has made a number of gestures toward the Torbit family, including  naming the Southwest Baltimore street where he lived after him and paying for his funeral.

But Clark said she was unimpressed with Rawlings-Blake’s personal conduct after the tragedy. “The mayor didn’t even come to the parents’ house,” she said. “I feel like she could have responded, expressed her feelings as a mother, about this loss.”

One official did impress her yesterday, however. Frederick H. Bealefeld III’s successor, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, came outside and spoke to the family members staging the protest.

“He took the time to talk to us. He invited us to come meet with him in his office and share our side of things,” she said. “He didn’t have to do that, but he did it.”

Clark said she believes the failure of the city to discipline police officers in other recent cases of misbehavior shows the handling of her brother’s death is part of a larger pattern.

Batts is new “and got stuck with this problem. Maybe he will do something about it,” Clark said. “For the sake of my family and the whole city, he should.”

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