Police Say Officer Slain In Chaotic Scene

Killing of a Norfolk officer by a colleague happened in 'a loud, confusing situation'

BILL GEROUX; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
May 24, 2006


The scene outside the public-housing complex was so chaotic that a Norfolk plainclothes officer may not have heard a fellow officer order him to drop his gun, police said yesterday.

The second officer then fatally shot Seneca Darden without knowing he was a police officer and fearing he might shoot someone in the crowd, said Norfolk police spokesman Chris Amos. Darden was clad in a white T-shirt and blue jeans for his role in an unrelated burglary investigation.

Amos said Norfolk police could offer no more details because the investigation is now in the hands of the Virginia State Police. "But this didn't happen in the public library," Amos said. "It was a loud, confusing situation."

Darden, 26, a Southampton County native and four-year veteran of the Norfolk police, was fatally shot Sunday night outside the Young Terrace public-housing project.

Police said Young Terrace had been the scene of two prior shooting reports that night, and officers were converging to search for one of the shooters. A crowd had gathered in a courtyard and Darden was holding a gun on a man when a uniformed K-9 officer arrived. The officer apparently ordered Darden to drop his gun several times before shooting him multiple times, police said.

Amos would not identify the officer who fired the shots. Amos said the shooter was not an overaggressive "hot shot" but a conscientious officer. Amos said he spent several hours with the man after the killing and that he "seemed to be still in shock."

Amos said he had heard only sadness expressed by fellow officers. Darden was black and the officer who shot him is white, Amos said, but any suggestion the shooting was racial "won't get any traction in the police department."

Police said they still do not know why Darden, who was working on cases in another neighborhood, came to Young Terrace. But Amos said he might have come to assist after learning of the prior shootings, or have been coming to or from the police precinct house, which is only two blocks from where Darden was shot.

State police are investigating Darden's death at the request of Norfolk Police Chief Bruce P. Marquis, who said he wanted an independent assessment. Such state-police investigations are not common, but this is the second into an officer-involved shooting in the past six months. The first investigation, which concluded last month, exonerated an Emporia police officer in the fatal shooting of a teenager in that Southside city.

The Norfolk investigation is likely to take several weeks, said state police spokesman Sgt. D.S. Carr, although "we're expediting it, we have a lot of agents working on it." Carr would not answer any questions yesterday about the shooting. He said the results of the investigation would be turned over to Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney Jack Doyle.

Amos said the Norfolk police department has been devastated by the second violent death of an officer in a year. Last fall, Norfolk officer Stanley Reaves, 33, was shot to death on a city street while investigating a call about a man behaving suspiciously. The suspect in Reaves' killing, Thomas A. Porter, was captured in New York after a four-day manhunt.

At least in Reaves' killing, Amos said, "there was someplace to focus your anger at, somewhere to focus your energy. But with this shooting, there's nothing. It's the nightmare of nightmares. I do think more training will come out of this."

Thomas J. Aveni, a former New Jersey police officer and a consultant in police shootings, said in an interview yesterday that Darden's killing appears to fit a nationwide pattern. Accidental shootings of plain-clothes officers by other police at confusing and dimly-lit crime scenes "happens a lot more often than people think," he said. "It's more than just a blip on the screen."

About 22 percent of police officers killed on duty are plain-clothes officers, Aveni said, and every year those include some killed by friendly fire after being mistaken for criminals brandishing guns. The fact that plain-clothes officers typically do not carry portable police radios greatly increases the potential for confusion, Aveni said.

Relatively few police departments provide specialized training to help plain-clothes officers handle such situations, Aveni said. Those officers should expose their badges when drawing weapons, he said, and watch carefully for the arrival and reaction of uniformed officers who may not recognize them. But sometimes that is easier said than done at a chaotic crime scene, he said.

Amos said Darden's funeral is tentatively scheduled for Friday.