Baltimore City

Officer held in shooting 'did what he had to do,' attorney says

The Baltimore police officer charged with first-degree murder in the off-duty shooting of an unarmed man outside a Mount Vernon club began hitting back at the accusations, with his attorney questioning the behavior of the victim and saying the officer "did what he had to do."

Addressing the incident for the first time, a defense attorney for Officer Gahiji A. Tshamba, 36, described his client as a decorated police veteran who has been devastated by the charges. He said the June 5 killing of Tyrone Brown came after the officer put himself on duty to respond to a sexual assault.

Brown, a 32-year-old former Marine from East Baltimore, was shot 12 times after Tshamba fired 13 rounds from his service weapon, according to charging documents. Police previously said Brown was struck nine times.

"A police officer in fear for his life has to do what he has to do," attorney Adam Sean Cohen told reporters outside Central Booking Monday. "If one shot doesn't work, if two shots don't work … you fire until the threat is gone."

Tshamba, dressed in jeans and white Adidas sneakers with his hands and legs shackled, did not react Monday morning as District Judge Ronald A. Karasic ordered him held without bond and placed him under protective custody.

Prosecutor David Chiu called Tshamba an "extreme risk to public safety."

"The last time I checked, I don't believe it's police policy to shoot an unarmed suspect, particularly surrounded by patrons leaving a bar area," Chiu told Karasic.

Police and witnesses have said that Brown inappropriately touched a female companion of Tshamba and that she swung at Brown. The officer drew his weapon and challenged Brown to "do it again." Sources told The Baltimore Sun that witnesses who were with Brown, as well as two independent witnesses, say Brown had his hands in the air as Tshamba began firing.

Cohen said Brown touched the woman on her "genitalia and buttocks." Seeing a crime being committed, Tshamba identified himself as an officer. Had he not jumped into action, Cohen told the judge, "the reports would be, 'Officer stands idly by as woman assaulted.' "

"I don't understand the mind-set of a married man who would approach a woman, in the presence of other women and a man, and feel it's OK to touch them on the buttocks and genitals," Cohen told reporters.

He did not describe the events directly leading to the shooting or why Tshamba felt the need to use deadly force, saying those issues would be addressed as the court process plays out.

Police have explained that Tshamba was not arrested at the scene of the shooting because the claims that Tshamba had put himself on duty — by identifying himself as a police officer — required additional investigation, as officers are authorized to use their weapons in certain situations.

Prosecutors sought a warrant late Friday afternoon to arrest Tshamba, and police had hoped to negotiate a surrender that night, but no one was able to contact Tshamba for more than 24 hours. He eventually turned himself in early Sunday, hours after police mobilized dozens of officers to track him down and passed out fliers in heavily trafficked nightspots.

Cohen said Tshamba was not eluding authorities, though he acknowledged that he does not know where Tshamba was during the 30-hour period. He said Tshamba was stressed about the accusations, media reports and a death threat — later determined to be a hoax — relayed to him by police, and did not expect to be charged until this week at the earliest.

"The portrayal of the search for him as a manhunt, that he was somehow avoiding surrender, was mischaracterized," Cohen said.

Tshamba, whose address and phone number listed in court documents are the address and phone number of the Eastern District police station, has no prior arrests on his record. Before joining the police department in 1994, Tshamba worked as a dietitian's aide at a Lutheran nursing home and as a safety guard with the Downtown Partnership, Cohen said. His sister is a police officer with a different state agency.

He has received commendations for a 1998 shooting, and for avoiding use of deadly force in an incident last year, and for saving a child who was being held at knifepoint, Cohen said. But documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun under a public information act request show that Tshamba was also disciplined in 2005 after he shot and wounded a man after getting into an altercation while driving drunk.

That shooting was ruled justified, with prosecutors determining that Tshamba reasonably felt in danger of his life, but he was suspended for about a week for being drunk, according to sources.

Court records show that the following year, he got into a car accident on Pulaski Highway while driving without insurance or registration. He was disciplined for that incident as well, the agency has said.

Cohen said in court that the officer has shared custody of a 4-year-old son, and has not had a vehicle for the past three years, requiring friends and family to drive him to work each day. In arguing for Tshamba's release on bail, Cohen said the officer planned to live at his mother's home.

"He has two lawyers, no money, and no transportation," Cohen said.