When a police officer dies in the line of duty, it is a tragedy beyond measure for any community. But when one is killed accidentally by a fellow officer, it is a shocking reminder of the dangers faced by police officers when they go to work each day.
Sgt. Tom Smith Jr., a 23-year law enforcement veteran and member of the BART police force, was shot and killed Tuesday by a fellow officer. The 42-year-old Smith, who headed the department's detective division, was part of a team searching an apartment at 6450 Dougherty Road in Dublin. It was the home of a suspect in several robberies on BART property.
Although details remain sketchy, officials with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, the agency in charge of the investigation, said Smith was part of a team that entered the apartment with guns drawn and wearing bulletproof vests. According to the official account, once inside, a single shot was fired by an officer who has 10 years experience. Smith was struck by the bullet and was killed.
While such instances of so-called "friendly fire" are rare, they do occur. In California, 35 other police officers have been killed by accidental gunfire since 1895. The last local one occurred in January 2001 in Alameda County when an undercover detective was shot and killed by two Oakland police officers.
Of course, anyone who puts on a police uniform knows that danger is part of the job, but we would surmise that few ever expect the danger can also come from fellow officers.
If anyone understood the inherent dangers in the job, it was Smith's wife who is also a BART police officer in the K-9 unit.
Smith is the first BART police officer to be killed in the line of duty in the 42-year history of the force.
It is vital that investigators in this case reconstruct the details of the events as thoroughly as possible because there are so many questions that are in dire need of answers. Was there an error in procedure? How experienced are BART police at conducting searches? Is there a need for better training? Just to name a few.
This death will have reverberations far beyond BART headquarters. It will chill officers in police agencies throughout the country.
Of course, it will devastate Smith's colleagues, friends and family, but we also rather imagine it will dramatically alter the life of the officer who fired the shot.
We join the entire community in expressing sadness for this tragedy and offer our most sincere condolences to both families.