Letter from BPD

We put the records with personnel files, so you are out of luck. (August 29, 2014)

The Baltimore Police Department has denied City Paper's request to see records of police use of firearms, citing the provision of the law that exempts personnel records. 

"The Firearms Discharge report is a part of the internal investigation conducted by the BPD whenever an officer discharges his or her firearm," Assistant City Solicitor Brent D. Schubert, the department's lawyer, wrote to City Paper yesterday. "Records of internal investigations are considered personnel records under MPIA."

The response came 73 days after the newspaper's request to inspect the records covering calendar year 2013; the law normally requires a response within 30 days. The department did not comment on its tardy response.

Police in most large departments since the 1970s have been required to account for every bullet that comes out of their service weapon. The form they must fill out, usually called a "Firearms Discharge Report," must disclose where, when, and what or who was shot at, whether the shot hit or missed its target, and other circumstances of the shooting (low-light conditions, suspect firing on the officer, etc.) and is typically due at the end of that officer's shift. The forms exempt bullets fired during training, and some exempt accidental discharge, and the records can be a treasure trove for anyone seeking to improve police training or understand the when, where, and why of police shootings.

The bullets, and where they go, are of obvious public interest, as are the circumstances under which they were fired and the rules and procedures that guided the officer who fired them.

The Baltimore City Police Department has always been secretive. It took the legal position that its training policies and procedures were exempt from public disclosure and has even refused to release its General Orders to The Sun, despite a judge's finding that the document was a public record.  

But not every department is so closed. New York City publishes online its firearms discharge reports in PDF format. In 2008 the RAND Corporation published a book-length analysis of the NYPD's firearms reporting and policies. The questions raised go to the heart of policing as a matter of public policy:

During the study, we became acutely aware that we were reviewing only cases in which officers discharged their weapons. We recognize that different officers will approach similar situations in different ways and that there is no single test to determine the correctness of an officer's decision to use deadly force. The legal standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Graham v Connor is "reasonableness" (490 U.S. 386, 109 S. Ct. 1865, May 15, 1989). Certainly, in the future, a great deal may be learned from cases in which an officers could deescalate the situation and did not have to revert to deadly force. However, such an inquiry was beyond the scope of this study.

In the late 1990s my former newspaper, The Hartford Advocate, asked for the Hartford (Connecticut) Police Department's firearms discharge reports. It took the department more than a year, but it did release the documents to me, and they were eye-opening. They depicted some heroic actions by police under fire. They also revealed some knucklehead behavior, as when some officers shot up cars in the back parking lot of headquarters. There was even a Chief Wiggam incident, in which a deputy chief fired his service pistol into a ceiling tile in his office. 

The main takeaway from the Hartford shootings of 15 years ago, however, were the dogs. Officers killed dozens of dogs when entering residences to search for drugs and other contraband. 

This is standard operating procedure in departments around the country.

Baltimore County made its firearms discharge data available to police researchers in the late 1990s, and they contributed to a report in Law & Order magazine which found that the department's officers hit their targets about two-thirds of the time when shooting in daylight, but less than half in "low light" conditions.

The same report, titled "Officer-Involved Shootings: What We Didn't Know Has Hurt Us," found during "bunch shootings"—i.e., several police officers firing at a single suspect—cops fired many more bullets and score many fewer hits. The authors had some trouble gathering data, however, and as they made clear in their "closing credits and observations," more gunshot data, better managed, and more open, might be a good thing: 

None of the data represented in this article should be construed to suggest that any of the depicted agencies are negligent in their firearms training. After digesting this material, one should reflect upon the fact that police gunfight data has been universally mismanaged, and as a consequence, largely misunderstood. While there will undoubtedly be consternation in some circles about this data being published, it is imperative that it is published. Misconceptions abound, and from them flourish mountains of distrust, and yes, endless litigation.


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