Baltimore City police officers stand with guns trained on a man dressed in jeans and white t-shirt. Their faces contorted, the officers yell repeatedly at him to throw down the knife he is holding.
An anxious crowd has gathered behind the police, with only a police car separating them from the officers. "Don't shoot that boy. Don't shoot that boy!" yells a woman in the crowd. But seconds later, after one of the officers hurls a comment at the crowd, he shoots the young man in the shoulder and kills him.
This scene was captured by a private citizen with his own camcorder. It is a scene that has been played hundreds of times on Baltimore City and national television in the past few weeks. It is a scene that has attracted national media attention and has some observers comparing Baltimore City's police enforcement style to that of a tougher New York City.
It is also a scene that begs for an answer to a larger question: What happens between Baltimore City police officers and the City's citizens when the video cameras are not rolling?
On the heels of the shooting death of James Quarles by a Baltimore City police officer, the ACLU of Maryland wants to find out. On August 14, the ACLU announced that it is beginning a formal investigation into whether there exists a pattern and practice of use of excessive force by some police officers in the Baltimore City Police Department.
Citing Maryland's Public Information Act, the ACLU has asked Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier to turn over records that would reveal how often City police have shot at citizens and how often citizens have been wounded or killed by police gunfire during the past five years.
After the ACLU's request, the Baltimore Sun obtained a preliminary indication of the seriousness of the problems. Its report on Monday, August 18, revealed that Quarles was the 71st person to be shot by a City officer since January, 1995, and the 26th to die. "That works out to about one person per month dying at the hands of Baltimore City police officers," said ACLU staff attorney Dwight Sullivan, who is heading up the ACLU's investigation.
"We need to know whether the police are using excessive force against their citizens, and how often," said Sullivan. "We're after the facts."
Sullivan noted that generally the police may use force if it is necessary to save their lives or the lives of other citizens, but they may only use that amount of force necessary to save a life. "Anything beyond that is considered 'excessive force' and is a violation of the citizen's constitutional rights," said Sullivan. "An officer can't use a gun if pepper spray would work."
While ACLU staff characterized the videotape of the Quarles shooting as "disturbing," Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland ACLU, noted that it is important to keep in mind that this may not necessarily be an isolated incident.
"Over the years we have received countless complaints of unconstitutional practices by officers," she says. "If the Rodney King incident taught us anything, it is that police officers do sometimes themselves violate the law. What about all the cases of excessive force that were not videotaped?"
ACLU attorneys called their project a long-term one. "Digging through police records to find patterns of abuse will be slow going," said Sullivan. "But we're in this for the long haul."
What will come of the ACLU's investigation? "That's a question that needs to be addressed by the larger community," said Goering.
Several community and civil rights organizations have expressed an interest in convening a community meeting on that topic. Goering has already spoken with Roger Lyons of the Baltimore Urban League about holding such a meeting.
The possible outcome of the investigation might include demanding that a Grand Jury investigate the Quarles shooting and lobbying for an independent civilian review board to investigate future cases.
The ACLU acknowledged that police have a tough job to do. "It's incredibly tough to be in the officer's shoes, having to make split-second decisions in heated situations," notes Goering. "That's why proper departmental hiring, training and disciplinary procedures are so critical.
"But while the policeman's job is tough, in this society we've drawn constitutional lines about how aggressively the police treat citizens. And thank goodness we have a Constitution!"