Amid nation's police-community tensions, Baltimore officers kill man in exchange of gunfire

Witness describes watching gunfire exchange between officers, gunman in West Baltimore.

A week after five police officers were fatally shot in Dallas by a sniper during a protest against police shootings, Baltimore police say four officers came under fire from a 33-year-old man with a self-assembled, high-powered long gun.

Two of the officers returned fire, fatally wounding the man and spurring a massive police response outside a West Baltimore apartment complex Thursday night.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Friday that the two officers who fired their weapons amid the "chaotic scene" have been placed on routine administrative duties pending an investigation into the incident.

He said a preliminary investigation suggested the two officers — one a 16-year veteran, and the other on the force for six years, neither of whom has been identified — acted appropriately and bravely in confronting the gunman, identified as Dayten Ernest Harper.

"We're lucky we don't have four dead cops today," Davis said, before repeating the number to let it sink in.

A person reached at a number listed for Harper declined to comment Friday evening.

The exchange of gunfire occurred about 9:30 p.m. Thursday, shortly after President Barack Obama concluded a televised town hall to address the Dallas attacks and the growing national debate over fatal police shootings of black men, including Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minn.

It also happened the same day that the Baltimore Police Department received a memo from the Baltimore field office of the FBI, warning that members of the city's Black Guerrilla Family gang had discussed the possibility of ambushing officers in the wake of the Dallas attack.

The memo, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, said the FBI had received "highly credible information" that the BGF had discussed how the gang could ambush law enforcement officers parked in side streets or alleys, and instructed its members to look for opportunities to shoot white police officers.

Davis said police do not believe the incident Thursday had anything to do with the threat and "don't believe it was an ambush." He said four plainclothes officers happened to hear gunfire off Winchester Street and responded.

"They were fired upon by a bad guy," he said. "That's not the first time that's happened in Baltimore."

Still, given the intensity of the incident and the existence of the FBI memo, and with the national debate over police-community tensions as a backdrop, Davis said he decided to write a letter to all members of his force to reassure them that they have support.

"As police officers across our nation watch the news and consider the recent events and their impact on officer safety, morale and our profession, Baltimore continues to be part of the news," Davis wrote, before referencing Thursday's shooting and the "AR-15 style" long gun Harper was allegedly carrying.

"We still don't know why he shot at us, but we know how it makes us feel. Angry, frustrated, sad and bewildered are a few emotions communicated to me just this morning. These sentiments, and I hope this doesn't surprise you, are being expressed to me by the citizens we serve each and every day.

"Baltimoreans from all walks of life have called, emailed, posted on social media and stopped me personally on the street just today, Friday ... because they want me to know they have our back."

Davis said detectives were working to determine what exactly occurred Thursday night and why Harper was firing his weapon in the first place, but have hit roadblocks. One of the officers at the scene was wearing one of the department's new body cameras but failed to turn it on in the heat of the moment, Davis said. Police have found other surveillance footage from cameras in the apartment building's parking lot, but none of it captured the exchange of gunfire, Davis said.

Samuel Savoy, 62, said he heard gunshots outside his apartment window and saw a man with a large gun facing officers. He said the man was standing near bushes outside the apartment building, while officers were standing in the parking lot.

"By the time I looked out the window, they told him to drop the weapon," Savoy said, but the man seemed resistant.

"He wasn't dropping nothing. He just shot at them," he said. "I was just shocked he actually shot at them."

Police said after Harper was shot at least once in the upper body, he fled into the apartment stairwell and threw the gun he was carrying into nearby woods at the rear of the building.

Medical personnel were not able to immediately treat him because police believed the situation was too dangerous, Davis said. Officers had blocked off surrounding streets for hours as they searched for a second possible shooter.

Police said Harper was "well known to law enforcement," citing a 2005 carjacking conviction and a 2010 attempted murder case, which records show was dropped by prosecutors. He was barred from carrying a firearm, Davis said, but was "able to somehow get his hands on a rifle."

"These weapons are designed to kill," Davis said Friday, with the recovered weapon and its ammunition laid out on a table in front of him. He lamented the ease with which he said criminals can obtain firearms in Baltimore.

Davis downplayed the FBI memo, describing its timing as "coincidental" and suggesting it did not play a role in how the department responded to the scene Thursday night. The memo itself stresses that the information had not been "fully evaluated … interpreted or analyzed."

Twice in recent years, area law enforcement officials have distributed information about the BGF gang allegedly plotting to attack officers. In April 2015, the Baltimore Police Department said it had received information that rival gangs were teaming up to "take out" law enforcement. The FBI later said it could not corroborate that report.

Another warning was issued by the FBI in December 2014, though no attacks were ever attributed to the threat.

Otis Thomas, 67, said he was making coffee when he heard the shots Thursday night.

"I heard it go off like a bomb," he said. Thomas said he stayed in the apartment until a police officer knocked on his door and asked if he was all right.

Savoy said he was told by officers to go downtown to give a statement to homicide detectives. As he followed an officer outside and down a stairwell, he said, he was told to step around the pools of blood. A shoe was left on the stairwell landing, he said.

Savoy, a Vietnam veteran who has lived at the apartment complex since December, said he was never concerned for his own safety during the shooting, but was "just shocked it happened like this."

On Friday morning, a man who appeared to be an employee of the complex followed several residents through the stairwell, pouring a bottle of cleaning solution where blood had been left behind. The employee then dragged a mop across the concrete landings.

Baltimore police have shot nine people this year, four of them fatally.

Baltimore Sun reporters Tim Prudente and Wyatt Massey contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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