The sergeant's instructions are unequivocal. "I want you to walk in there and kill this guy," he tells the shooter, Zachary Wein, who is a 14-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, and an eight-year veteran of the SWAT team.
"He's high on drugs. He can kill the girl at any second," the sergeant, who police officials declined to identify by name, continues. "I don't see any need for less lethal."
A bald lieutenant asks if there aren't some other negotiating tactics available.
There are not.
The exchange is captured on body-worn cameras just seconds before Wein shoots Reno Owens in the head at 7:41 a.m. on Friday, March 24. Owens, a 39-year-old African-American man with no fixed address, was sitting on a bed with two children, aged 1 and 4 years, in his arms. He had a butcher knife with an eight-inch blade. He was talking crazy.
Police showed the video to members of the press today, but forbade audio or visual recording of it, save for a short clip of the SWAT team heading up the stairs. They will not release video publicly, according to spokesman T.J. Smith, in order to protect the children from discovering the video, years from now, and being re-traumatized.
In the video you see the house where the family lives. Owens was a relative, homeless, they said, who asked to stay the night. He woke up early and chased all the other adults out of the house. The woman is yelling into her phone and smoking a cigarette as she fumbles with the keys to let the police in. "His mind is somewhere out," she says.
The first responders wait for backup.
The woman is heard explaining how she ended up outside at 6:30 a.m.: "Because he was coming, charging at me he had the knife!" Soon the police are inside.
There's a fish tank in one corner of the living room. At the top of the stairs is the bedroom, a ceiling fan spinning fast above it, a big bed, Owens on it, wearing a gray hoodie, holding the 4-year-old girl. The boy an arms length away. The knife flashing in his left hand.
Owens says, "Gotta go the fuck downstairs and tell the father to come get his daughter."
"Drop the knife, man," the cop responds. "C'mon, man, this is unnecessary."
"That's the only fuckin' way he comin' up here," Owens says.
It goes on like this. In the edited version of the tape, which is about half the length of the actual events, Owens keeps demanding to see the child's father. He commands the cops to back off. He is by turns loud and silent. At one point he sings "Rock-a-bye Baby" in a raspy voice, then says, as if in triumph, "hand that rock the cradle!"
The cops keep telling him this is unnecessary. They tell him the man he wants to see is on the way. He is not. Commissioner Kevin Davis will later say the cops would never bring the father up the stairs, fearing that Owens wanted to have the man present so he could murder his children in front of him.
"Dude!" Owens yells. "You know they fucked up! You know they did! What you gonna do? What you gonna do?"
At no time does it come clear what Owens is talking about. He asks for a retired police detective named Sean Harris. He broods. He says things under his breath that you can't quite hear, but in the kind of even, angry tone that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
"One more motherfucking chance, bitch," he says. He moves the knife to his right hand.
In a question-and-answer session after the the video, Smith said mental health professionals were en route at the time of the shooting. It was a very quick scenario. About an hour from the initial 911 call until Owens was dead.
It was also a very lengthy scenario, said Davis: "The patrol guys did a pretty damn good job for a long, long time" in trying to negotiate with Owens.
Police officials emphasized that the decision to shoot Owens was absolutely justified, given the knife, the little children, screaming for help.
"To say it's a justified police-involved shooting… doesn't do it justice," Davis said. "I commend this action."
"The situation was always a deadly force situation," Smith explained. "It's a matter of getting the right equipment there."
"The M4 is a precision long gun instrument," Davis said, speaking of the rifle Wein used to kill Owens. It is just the thing for putting a bullet between someone's eyes at 10 paces. The sidearm, especially in a patrol officer's hands, would be too risky for the children.
"The world had changed with active threat situations," Smith said. "We can make up and excuse and say that man in Newtown was mentally ill, but he still killed those children. In the past 15 years, the paradigm shift is, go in and stop the threat."
"We believe he was both suicidal and homicidal," Davis added.
They do not know yet if he was actually on drugs.
Someone asked Davis about the sergeant's instruction to calmly walk in and kill Owens.
"It's not an uncommon communication in hostage barricade situations," Davis said. "In a SWAT scenario it is common place for a direction to use deadly force to be given. It is perhaps difficult for people to hear that."
He added that, had Wein discovered a different scene in that bedroom than the one the sergeant had described, he of course would not necessarily have shot Owens.
In the video, Wein walks up the carpeted stairway, helmeted, with the M4 rifle leading him in front of his turtle vest, another big handgun strapped next to his right knee. The sergeant is following. "Just want to talk to you, OK?" He shoulders the rifle.
"Sir, we don't want to hurt anybody."
"Go ahead!" comes Owens' reply. "Go ahead!"
A child is crying as the camera shudders in motion, blacked-out by a uniform or vest or shield. Police voices, loud:
"Get the kid!" "Shots fired!" "Medic! Medic! Everybody get off the air."
"Suspect's down," one of the cops says. "The kids are safe."
The girl is visible in a flash. There is blood on her hands. There isn't any such thing as a clean shot.