When a Montgomery County police officer was found shot on top of a parking deck in downtown Silver Spring Oct. 14, police gave little information for the first 24 hours. Some police experts say that was the right decision.
Officer T.J. Bomba, 38, died that day at MedStar Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C. His death was ruled a suicide, police announced the next day — about 36 hours after the shooting
According to police, Bomba, a 13-year-veteran of the force, responded to a report of “disorderly conduct” on the top floor of a parking garage at Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street. He radioed for backup. Other officers found him with a gunshot wound.
When police first disclosed that an officer had been shot, they told the public they were investigating his death as a homicide. Throughout the day on Oct. 14, police said there was no danger to the community, and there were no witnesses or suspects.
Still, three schools near downtown Silver Spring “sheltered in place,” meaning outside doors were locked while regular instruction continued.
Former Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger, who retired in April after 15 years as chief, said in an interview last week that he didn’t know all of the facts surrounding Bomba’s death. From what he has heard, though, he thinks the department made the right call in taking a wait-and-see approach on sharing detailed information.
“What I do know is that any time you have an unattended death, you have a suspicious death, you’ve got to approach it like it could be a homicide,” he said. “That’s where you start the investigation. If it takes another path, you go where the facts take you and sometimes you get the information from the medical examiner you can’t be 100% certain of.”
Manger, who now works at the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, was one of several people who attended a panel discussion last week in North Potomac on mental health for first responders.
He said in an interview after the discussion that investigating a suspicious death as a homicide is standard protocol.
“Any death where you go to a parking garage and find someone deceased by a gunshot wound, you have to approach that as a possibility it could be a homicide,” he said.
Similarly, Rockville Deputy Chief of Police Laura Lanham said in an interview that with any kind of death investigation, it is common for police to “not know 100% the next day.”
“We tell the story based on what we can,” she said. “You want to be accurate with anything that they [police] have.”
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Washington, D.C., think tank Police Executive Research Forum, said there isn’t one right way to handle the initial communication about a death investigation.
“Departments all handle it differently. The first thing is trying to get the facts and what happened. In this case, we didn’t know the facts,” he said.
Wexler said the challenge for police in sharing news of an officer death is balancing the need to keep the public informed while respecting the needs of Bomba’s family.
“Sometimes those things just take time. And there’s sensitivities to the officer and his family and sensitivity to the community,” he said.
“I think what happens in many of these cases, it takes time to get information and facts. The department tried to get as much information as it could.”
The “shelter in place” procedures, Wexler said, were appropriate in the immediate aftermath of the shooting because Bomba had reported investigating a report of disorderly conduct when he called for backup.
“They [police] wanted to be overprotective,” he said.
Some in the county questioned why the police took so long to disclose to the public that Bomba’s death was a suicide, including County Council Member Will Jawando.
“I think it’s important that the police department is upfront with the public,” Jawando said Oct. 15. “I’m glad they got that out, but I would encourage us to look into the circumstances of why we couldn’t have found out sooner.”
Silver Spring resident Katie Stauss, a member of the steering committee of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, said in an interview that she was abroad at the time of the shooting. She said she monitored the situation closely because she has sons who attend Sligo Creek Elementary and Silver Spring International Middle schools, which were under “shelter in place” orders.
She said it was “a little bit concerning” that the police put out information earlier that day about “disorderly conduct” without more details. Additionally, the sight of officers from across the county rushing to the scene created a sense of panic in her neighborhood, she said.
“It set up a situation where it made other people vulnerable,” she said.
But Stauss said there was little the police could have done differently in their response in that situation.
Stauss said she became less worried later when she found out that her sons were being permitted to walk around their school campuses, which she knew would not be the case if there were an active shooter at large. When the police said they were investigating the shooting as a homicide but there was no threat to the community, she said she knew immediately that Bomba’s death was a suicide.
Stauss said the police were “caught between a rock and a hard place,” in that it seemed fairly likely that Bomba’s death was a suicide, but they needed to verify with the medical examiner.
Her neighbors on an East Silver Spring listserv, she said, didn’t understand the police’s mixed messages.
“I understand they [police] needed to wait. But it was very confusing,” she said. “They had to kind of be on the side of caution in terms of waiting for the medical examiner report to come out.”
Stauss said the lack of communication by police about Bomba’s suicide pales in comparison to other recent controversies, including the department’s sharing of a photo in which officers posed with a resident holding a flag that depicts the “Thin Blue Line” — a controversial symbol used to signify solidarity with law enforcement. Also more controversial, she said, was the shooting of Robert White, an unarmed black man, in June 2018.
Stauss emphasized that despite her and others feelings about the police communication surrounding Bomba’s suicide, her strongest emotion was sadness for the officer’s family.
John Violanti, a research professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the State University of New York at Buffalo and an expert on police stress, said he was unfamiliar with Bomba’s case, but, in general, police are cautious about making an immediate determination about a death until the medical examiner issues a report.
Violanti commended Montgomery County police for acknowledging later that Bomba’s death was a suicide.
“A lot of times, suicides within the police department are not publicized for various reasons, so it’s probably unusual that they would release that to the public,” he said.
Violanti, who spent 23 years as a New York State Police trooper, said three officers died by suicide during his time on the force, none of which was publicly discussed. He said police and other emergency responders across the country are often unwilling to acknowledge when an officer takes their own life.
“No one wants to talk about suicide,” he said. “There’s a stigma in society on suicide. Nobody wants to mention it. This stigma is even stronger among police people than it is among the general public. Police officers have this cultural ethos that we need to remain strong at all times.”
Violanti said more police departments should follow Montgomery County’s example to reduce the stigma on suicide among first responders.
“The public has a right to know and they should know,” he said. “If we want to prevent future police suicides, we need people to know that this is a public [health issue] in this profession. The more the public knows, the better we’re going to get from legislatures to provide mental health assistance.”
Warning sides of suicide:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
If someone exhibits warning signs of suicide:
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or Montgomery County 24 Hour Crisis Center at 240-777-4000
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from medical or mental health professional
Source: Reportingonsuicide.org; Montgomery County
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org