0
Votes

Shooting To Kill

Knowing when to use lethal force is difficult decision.

For police officers, the use of deadly force is a necessary and an unwelcome part of the job. They may be called upon to make a split-second decision and those crucial seconds can be haunting.

"This is one of the most difficult parts of being on the force," said Capt. John Crawford, commander of the Public Information Office. "Nobody wants to be the one who has to pull the trigger."

When city police officers responded to a 20-hour hostage situation on Wyatt Avenue in Del Ray two weeks ago, many officers could not help but recall the last hostage situation in Alexandria which ended with the death of a police corporal.

"I think when we learned about the hostage situation in Del Ray, a lot of people were remembering the last hostage situation we experienced in Alexandria," said Crawford. "That was a very different situation, but it left a mark on this community that will never be forgotten."

When Lewis Barber took his 9-year-old son hostage at gunpoint on April 26, police put their training and experience into use. But now questions are emerging about how they handled the situation. Barber had emerged from the house on Wyatt Avenue brandishing a weapon. According to an eyewitness, Barber was asked several times to drop his weapon. But he continued to threaten officers with a firearm, so police used lethal force to end the situation. Now Barber's friends are questioning why his parents were not allowed to be part of the negotiations.

BECAUSE HOSTAGE situations can turn violent so quickly — and because the psychological profile of someone who takes a hostage is so inherently unpredictable — officers are very concerned about following the letter of the law. In this case, that's Police Directive 10.32.04, which dictates when and how officers should use lethal force. The directive states that lethal force is justified when it is used in defense against death or serious injury. Officers are instructed to meet force with equal force.

"We rely heavily on negotiations," said Crawford. "That's always the main focus of trying to diffuse these situations."

But Barber's friends question the willingness of police to negotiate. They wonder why his parents and friends were not allowed to talk to him.

"Why didn't they allow his father to talk to him? Why wasn't I allowed to talk to him?" asked Tom Bijak, a 15-year friend of Barber. "This was a man who respected his parents, and they might have been able to put an end to this situation. People focus on the fact that he came out of the house with a gun, but what about the 20 hours before that?"

Barber's friends question the need to use lethal force.

"I think a good man may have died unnecessarily," said Bijak. "This was not a guy who was violent. He believed in justice, and he felt that the whole process behind the retraining order that his wife filed against him was unjust."

Bijak has put together a Web site to ask these sorts of questions. The site — JusticeForLew.org — asks many questions about the events on Wyatt Avenue. Some answers may be forthcoming in the internal investigation initiated in the wake of these events.

According to police procedure, the incident will be handled as a criminal investigation until a determination is made otherwise. Officers involved in Barber's shooting may be questioned as part of a preliminary criminal investigation. Ultimately, Commonwealth Attorney S. Randolph Sengel will examine the police department's investigation.

MARCH 22, 1989 was the day when a hostage situation in the 300 block of Hopkins Court exploded into violence. Jamie Wise, a 34-year-old Washington man, had taken several hostages in Alexandria to collect a drug debt. Corporal Charles Hill and Officer Andrew Chelchowski arrived on the scene and began negotiating with Wise.

After five hours of refusing to cooperate, the man emerged from the house holding a sawed-off shotgun to the head of a teenage victim.

"When the man emerged from the house with the hostage, it really surprised police," said Crawford, who was part of the Special Operations team at the scene that day. "He went mobile with a weapon, and that ratcheted up the situation to a great extent."

According to police, Wise was high on crack and acting erratically. A police sharpshooter hit Wise, but not before the man was able to fire his weapon twice. One shot hit Corporal Hill in the head. The other shot hit Officer Chelchowski in his legs.

Wise died within two hours and Chelchowski remained haunted by the memory of that day. He endured months of recovery and rehabilitation, ultimately falling into a deep depression. Although he eventually returned to light-duty status, he was never the same. On July 29, 1993, he committed suicide in Prince William County.

"Hostage-barricade situations are extremely dangerous," said Crawford. "At Wyatt Avenue and Hopkins Court, we knew that a weapon was involved in the hostage-barricade situation. Even though the situations were very different, the level of danger is equal when a weapon is involved."

As part of National Police Week, officers who take part in the Police Unity Tour will stop at Hopkins Court to remember Hill and Chelchowski. When the tour reaches Hopkins Court around noon on Thursday, a moment of silence will honor the fallen men. In total, 16 Alexandria law enforcement officers have been called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. Each will be represented in the tour, which culminates in Washington, D.C.