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For officer as nurturer, a tragic irony An unarmed youth's life ends at the hands of an unlikely user of deadly force

Buffalo Police Officer Gerald Smith is a community cop known for mentoring youths in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods.

High school student Deandre Baldon had been arrested for fistfighting, was living in a violent neighborhood and had lost his mother to murder.

Baldon was just the type of youth whom Smith has tried to help in the past.

But their paths collided in tragedy last Monday when Smith fatally shot the 17-year-old after a gunfire rampage on the East Side.

Police officials say the shooting was justified because Smith, an 18-year veteran of the force, perceived that his life was in danger.

Smith had reason to believe that Baldon was armed, they say, because just minutes earlier, Baldon and two other youths were inside a car firing more than a dozen shots at a man.

"He's solid as a rock," said a police officer who works with Smith and spoke with him after the fatal shooting. "He knows there's nothing he could have done. He knew it was what he had to do."

The officer and others who are quoted spoke on condition of anonymity because the police administration has ordered officers not to talk about the shooting.

The officer said Smith is trying to stay strong.

"If he could have avoided it, he would have avoided it," he said of Smith's decision to use deadly force.

Smith has been placed on administrative leave. Police officials said that no departmental charges are expected against Smith but that the deadly force case is expected to be sent to a grand jury.

The victim's grandmother, Marcia Baldon, wants to know why her grandson was shot.

"The police thought he had a gun," she said. "I didn't hear anything about a warning shot. If they saw something shiny and they weren't sure, why did they have to shoot him in the chest? Why couldn't they have shot him in the leg or foot?"

She also wants to know how he could have been shot in the chest if he was running from the scene.

"I need some answers," she added. "I need to know these things, so I can have a little bit of closure."

Smith, the man who shot her grandson, is one of the department's community police officers.

His job is to act as a liaison with the community -- attending block club meetings and resolving residents' quality-of-life-complaints -- during his afternoon shift at the Northeast District police station.

>'A humanitarian side'

Several police officers said Smith often went that extra step by coordinating youth basketball tournaments and mentoring youths on staying away from a life of crime.

Another veteran officer said Smith is more known for counseling youths than making arrests.

"He has a humanitarian side to him," the officer said. "He's always been an upstanding officer who cares more about mentoring youth. And he's more willing to talk, instead of immediately locking someone up."

Smith has had at least two close calls with violent suspects.

On Oct. 4, 1996, Smith and officer Aaron Salter Jr. responded to a report of a burglary in progress on Leroy Avenue when a 25-year-old man stepped up from behind them and pointed a loaded 12-gauge shotgun in their faces.

The officers told him to put the gun down, but the man acted as if he was going to shoot them, and Smith fired a shot that missed. The man later surrendered to the SWAT team.

Just four years earlier, Smith did not use deadly force when a man lunged at him and his partner with a knife.

Smith and Officer Michael Healy were responding to a burglar alarm at an East Utica Street business April 6, 1992.

When a 68-year-old man outside the business came at Smith with a knife, Smith responded by drawing his service weapon and trying to knock the knife out of the man's hand before Healy eventually shot and wounded the man.

During last Monday's incident, Smith gave chase in his police cruiser after three youths inside a car were shooting at a man fleeing in his car.

One of the youths' shots struck the left hand of Kenyon J. Edwards, 33.

When the three youths ditched their car and ran into the darkness, Smith saw a shiny metallic glint behind the bushes, thought that it was a gun and fired at two of the youths, fatally striking Baldon.

Smith, a married father of two, is now forced to live with the enormity of that deadly night.

Charles P. Ewing, a University at Buffalo law professor and forensic psychologist, commented how the killing might be affecting Smith. "It appears he did what was necessary because the law doesn't require him to wait until he was shot or injured to use deadly force," Ewing said. "But just because it was justified doesn't mean that it doesn't work on your conscience.

"I can't imagine what he's going through, and it has to be compounded by the fact that he has kids of his own."

Police believe that Baldon and the two youths were shooting at Edwards because they wanted to stop him from testifying in a home-invasion case.

Baldon had just completed his junior year at Burgard Vocational High School.

Four months ago, March 1, Baldon was among six students arrested in what police said was a fistfight at Burgard that was part of a feud between gangs of black and Hispanic students.

As a child, Baldon saw his share of violence.

When he was 10, his mother was stabbed to death by his stepfather inside their Newton Street home. His stepfather, Dwight Devers, was sentenced to 22 years to life behind bars.

"It's an extremely sad story, but it's not that unusual to see kids who are exposed to violence at home being violent," Ewing said.

Family members said Baldon was bounced around foster homes after his mother was murdered and most recently lived with his maternal grandmother.

He lived on Goemble Avenue in the city's Walden-Bailey neighborhood -- a troubled area where gang violence, drug dealers on the corner and the sound of guns crackling are a way of life for many residents.

"Sadly, it's an area with a lot of guns, and the ability to buy a gun at that age is so easy," Ewing said. "I'm sure that economically, he did not come from the best circumstances."

>Making a fatal choice

But Marcia Baldon saw some promise in her grandson's plans for the summer and his efforts at school.

He had been accepted into an automotive internship program for the summer. Last Monday morning, just hours after he was killed, he was supposed to have started working at an Orchard Park dealership for about four or five hours a day, his grandmother said. In the afternoons, he was going to work with young kids in Masten Park as part of the Mayor's Summer Youth Program.

"He did have some bumpy spots in the road along the way, but I thought he was doing well," she said. "He knew that the only way you could succeed was to work hard.

"Deandre was a good person. The principal from his school has called and been to our house. She recommended that he be in the automotive program, and he was going to be in a leadership program at school."

Baldon was asked whether she believes that her grandson was involved in the attack on Edwards, the potential witness. "I'm not sure," she replied. "I can't say, 'Absolutely not.' I honestly cannot answer that."

The combination of poverty, violence and limited parenting can be a deadly recipe, but many police officers believe that Baldon had a choice that night. Police say he chose to be inside that car -- three youths armed with two shotguns and an assault rifle.

And, they believe, he chose to be one of those youths firing shots at a man they were trying to kill.

"This youth was lost to the dark side of society, but he made a choice in life," said one police officer. "He may not have had a mother, father or uncle, but there's churches, mentorship programs, schools, community centers. . . . He could have turned to any of these things for help.

"I feel sad that we lost him, but we lost him by his own means."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com

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