A man fatally shot by a Baltimore County police officer Sunday through a closed glass storm door had charged at the officer while brandishing a large knife after his girlfriend told a 911 operator that he was "fixing to get someone hurt," authorities said.
Officers had also been told that the man was suicidal and his girlfriend had told dispatchers that the "first person who comes near him will get stabbed."
"He was a very dangerous individual," said police spokeswoman Elise Armacost, who quoted from a transcript of the emergency call to blunt criticism from witnesses who called the shooting unjustified.
"They killed an innocent man who needed help," said Sandra Jacobs, who saw the shooting and whose daughter, Melissa, dated 40-year-old Nathaniel McCormick. "That's all he wanted, was some help. He was the sweetest guy."
A neighbor, Ashley Wetherbee, said the officers on the porch of the rowhouse in the 7000 block of Berkshire Road in Dundalk had no reason to shoot through the door at a man inside his own home.
"'Put the weapon down. Put it down,'" she said the officers screamed; then, she said, they "just started firing. They were standing outside. I just think it was wrong. There was no attempt to talk him out."
Police say the shooting is being investigated internally and also will be reviewed by the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. Authorities declined to identify the officer who shot McCormick until the investigation is complete, a policy at odds with the city Police Department, which names officers within 24 hours of a police-involved shooting.
Armacost would only say that the officer was a seven-year veteran of the force. She said the first officer to respond, shortly before 9:30 p.m., went up to the porch and saw McCormick standing inside with his back to the storm door.
The officer could see him "definitely holding a large knife," described by police at the scene as having a blade about 9 inches long. A 911 caller had said the man was armed with "knives," indicating more than one.
Police said McCormick refused demands to drop the knife. Armacost said a female officer began to turn the door knob, then McCormick "turned and began charging."
A male officer backing up the female officer fired several times through the glass door from a few feet away, Armacost said. McCormick was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
Jacobs, the mother of McCormick's girlfriend, disputed key details provided by police and denied that her daughter had told police that McCormick was dangerous to anyone but himself.
"She just wanted to get help," Jacobs said. She also said Monday that McCormick wasn't armed with a large knife, but perhaps with a penknife, and said an officer did not go to the door and try to open it.
Jacobs said McCormick had been laid off from his job as an electrician, his mother had died and he had broken up with and gotten back together with his girlfriend several times over the past two weeks.
Jacobs said her daughter begged a police dispatcher to call an ambulance: "She wanted someone to come and take him to the hospital and calm him down."
After her daughter spoke to police, Jacobs said, she and her daughter walked outside with her two granddaughters. She said her daughter wanted to get the children into a neighbor's house before the police came. They were on the lawn when the shooting happened.
Charles "Joe" Key Sr., a retired Baltimore police lieutenant and firearms trainer who wrote the city department's rules on using deadly force, called it a "a tough call, a terrible situation," but he defended the shooting.
"Hindsight speculation is that the door would have held him, but there is no way to predict that the door would've stopped him," Key said. "The officers could've talked to him longer. They could've run. But cops have no duty to retreat. They have to make sure this guy doesn't hurt anybody else."
Several local police departments have been criticized in the past for shooting people who are mentally disturbed, and mental health advocates have said police officers are often ill-equipped to handle sometimes volatile situations involving people who don't behave according to societal norms
In 2006, Anne Arundel County police defended themselves after officers shot three mentally unstable men, including an unarmed naked man and another armed with scissors. Other Baltimore-area departments have seen similar situations.
Steve Johnson, the associate director for adult services for Baltimore Mental Health Systems Inc., said that police typically have difficulty communicating with the mentally ill. If a person is depressed, Johnson said, "he might not be able to follow directions well."
The health company trains Baltimore police cadets "to help them understand what it might be like to be a person experiencing mental health symptoms," Johnson said. "Our goal is to reduce injury to both police officers and to others."
The Baltimore County Police Department has similar training programs. But Johnson said that training doesn't always help, particularly in fast-moving, dangerous situations.
"We know that police have very specific procedures about the use of force," he said. "We're not trying to replace that. We're trying to help them understand there are some strategies they can potentially use to de-escalate situations. We also recognize there are situations when force needs to be used."