There is an interesting article in the New York Times today about FBI shootings, The F.B.I. Deemed Agents Faultless in 150 Shootings. They've all been "good" shots, even the following one where an innocent man gets shot in the face. Please pardon me if I sound a bit skeptical.
Occasionally, however, there were alternative reviews. One, involving a March 2002 episode in which an agent shot an innocent Maryland man in the head after mistaking him for a bank robbery suspect, offers a case study in how the nuances of an F.B.I. official narrative can come under scrutiny.
In that episode, agents thought that the suspect would be riding in a car driven by his sister and wearing a white baseball cap. An innocent man, Joseph Schultz, then 20, happened to cross their path, wearing a white cap and being driven by his girlfriend. Moments after F.B.I. agents carrying rifles pulled their car over and surrounded it, Agent Christopher Braga shot Mr. Schultz in the jaw. He later underwent facial reconstruction surgery, and in 2007 the bureau paid $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit.
The internal review, however, deemed it a good shoot. In the F.B.I.’s narrative, Agent Braga says that he shouted “show me your hands,” but that Mr. Schultz instead reached toward his waist, so Agent Braga fired “to eliminate the threat.” While one member of the review group said that “after reading the materials provided, he could not visualize the presence of ‘imminent danger’ to law enforcement officers,” the rest of the group voted to find the shooting justified, citing the “totality of the circumstances surrounding the incident,” including that it involved a “high-risk stop.”
But an Anne Arundel County police detective prepared an independent report about the episode, and a lawyer for Mr. Schultz, Arnold Weiner, conducted a further investigation for the lawsuit. Both raised several subtle but important differences.
For example, the F.B.I. narrative describes a lengthy chase of Mr. Schultz’s car after agents turned on their siren at an intersection, bolstering an impression that it was reasonable for Agent Braga to fear that Mr. Schultz was a dangerous fugitive. The narrative spends a full page describing this moment in great detail, saying that the car “rapidly accelerated” and that one agent shouted for it to stop “over and over again.” It cites another agent as estimating that the car stopped “approximately 100 yards” from the intersection.
By contrast, the police report describes this moment in a short, skeptical paragraph. Noting that agents said they had thought the car was fleeing, it points out that the car “was, however, in a merge lane and would need to accelerate to enter traffic.” Moreover, a crash reconstruction specialist hired for the lawsuit estimated that the car had reached a maximum speed of 12 miles per hour, and an F.B.I. sketch, obtained in the lawsuit, put broken glass from a car window 142 feet 8 inches from the intersection.
The F.B.I. narrative does not cite Mr. Schultz’s statement and omits that a crucial fact was disputed: how Mr. Schultz had moved in the car. In a 2003 sworn statement, Agent Braga said that Mr. Schultz “turned to his left, towards the middle of the car, and reached down.” But Mr. Schultz insisted that he had instead reached toward the car door on his right because he had been listening to another agent who was simultaneously shouting “open the door.”
A former F.B.I. agent, hired to write a report analyzing the episode for the plaintiffs, concluded that “no reasonable F.B.I. agent in Braga’s position would reasonably have believed that deadly force was justified.” He also noted pointedly that Agent Braga had been involved in a previous shooting episode in 2000 that he portrayed as questionable, although it had been found to be justified by the F.B.I.’s internal review process.
Asked to comment on the case, a lawyer for Agent Braga, Andrew White, noted last week that a grand jury had declined to indict his client in the shooting.