(Updated 9/6/2013) Baltimore police shot and killed a 25-year-old man who they said was about to commit a crime at a nearby business on Sept. 4.
The shooting spurred outrage from residents and leaders in the Douglas Homes community, located in northeast Baltimore.
On the scene following the shooting, Dep. Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said police special enforcement officers received “intelligence” that a crime would be committed at a local business. He said officers pursued a suspect, later identified as Donte Bennett, into the Douglas Homes community.
Rodriguez said officers claimed they struggled with Bennett, who produced a handgun; however, it is unclear how Bennett produced the weapon during the struggle. He said the officers “feared for their lives” and, at around 6:56 p.m., three officers shot Bennett multiple times. Bennett was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. None of the officers involved were injured.
According to The Baltimore Sun, Bennett was wanted for violating his probation on drug charges, and had previously faced car theft and weapons charges.
Also, two of the three officers identified as having participated in the shooting had previously fired their service weapons, the Sun reported. Officer Joseph Wiczulis, 32, fired at a suspect in March 2010 who had shot at two other officers; Officer Kyle Gaskin discharged his weapon at a suspect who had dragged him from a moving vehicle in 2009, according to the Sun, but did not hit the suspect. The third officer, identified as Peter Iacovo, had not been involved in any previous shooting incidents.
Statements from the police department conflict with accounts from more than a half dozen witnesses in the area. Many said Bennett did not have a handgun, but a cell phone.
Melvin Williams, 70, said he witnessed the shooting from a nearby bench and saw police chase Bennett up the street. He said the officers had Bennett boxed in and could have arrested him without discharging their weapons.
“They wrestled him down to the ground,” said Williams. “There was like a 10- to 15-second pause and then you heard the shots. It sounds like firecrackers…they could have put the handcuffs on him without shooting him.”
Williams said Bennett’s face was swollen when he was placed on a stretcher and taken to the hospital, but he said he believes Bennett was already dead.
“They didn’t turn the sirens on or nothing,” said Williams.
One 10-year-old boy said he was riding his bike around the neighborhood when the shooting occurred.
“The man couldn’t move or go nowhere,” said the boy. “They had him up against the gate. They could have put the handcuffs on him then. They didn’t have to shoot him.”
Neighbors said nearly a dozen other school-age children were outside playing in the court where the shooting occurred, or riding bikes near the incident.
At least one community leader said she is upset about the manner in which the police handled the situation.
Catherine Benton-Jones, a member of the Douglas Homes’ tenant association, said she left the neighborhood about 30 minutes before the shooting, and received several phone calls from frantic neighbors that police had shot a man in the block. Benton-Jones said she rushed back to the neighborhood, arriving around 7:05 p.m.
“When I got back, children were out there hollering and screaming,” said Benton-Jones. “They wouldn’t let mothers get their children. It doesn’t make any sense for the police to run up onto a community that way and not care about the children.”
Benton-Jones said she appreciates the job the police department does at clearing drug and criminal activity from her neighborhood, but criticized how the department interacts with members of the community.
“I applaud them for coming and cleaning up the corner and the drugs,” said Benton-Jones. “But it’s how they deal with the people in the community.”
According to Benton Jones, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting police officers would not let parents grab their children who were playing in the courtyard and witnessed the shooting. She said officers were hostile to frantic neighbors and aggressively yelled for them to keep quiet.
Rodriguez disagreed with the account, saying the officers made a good judgment call based on the “intelligence” they received.
“When an individual who is armed, that does not comply with the laws of an officer, one can only guess what that person would do if [they] confronted a citizen who can’t defend themselves,” said Rodriguez. “So, I’m proud of the work of the officers.”
According to police records, the Douglas Homes shooting is the 14th police-involved shooting in the city this year.
Rodriguez said the police department is following protocol and has launched a full investigation into the shooting. The three officers involved have been placed on administrative leave per department policy.
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