A car theft suspect shot a city detective in the chest yesterday, then raised the handgun to his own head and killed himself after refusing to drop the weapon on a busy West Baltimore street.
Detective David F. Azur, 30, a decorated 7 1/2 -year veteran, was shot at point-blank range but escaped serious injury because he was wearing protective body armor.
Azur was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was treated for a bruised chest and released yesterday afternoon, police said.
"He said he feels like he was hit in the chest with a sledgehammer," Mayor Martin O'Malley said after visiting the hospital.
The 39-year-old shooter, whom police would not identify pending notification of his family, was pronounced dead at the scene, in the 1200 block of W. North Ave., about 12:45 p.m.
The incident capped a weekend of Baltimore violence that left seven people dead - five from shootings - raising to 171 the number of homicides in the city. By this time last year, 145 homicides had been recorded in the city.
"It is a very violent place. I have been saying that for some time," Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said at the shooting scene.
"I find it incredible that someone would shoot an officer over a stolen car."
The shooting occurred on a retail strip along North Avenue during a rain-soaked lunch hour. Witnesses said they ducked into a nearby Burger King restaurant and other stores during the gunfire.
Norris said the incident began when members of the Regional Auto Theft Task Force - a joint effort between city and county officers - spotted a brown Pontiac Grand Am rental car, believed to be stolen, with two men in it.
Two unmarked task force vehicles - a blue Chevrolet van and a white Jeep Cherokee - followed the car east on North Avenue several blocks before boxing it in, he said.
As Azur attempted to remove the passenger, the man pulled a silver-colored handgun from his waistband and shot the officer from less than a foot away, police said.
The suspect got out of the car, put the gun to his head and ran west on North Avenue about 50 yards before officers caught up with him.
The man "turned and told the officers, 'If you don't back off, I am going to shoot myself,'" Norris said.
Then the suspect fired one bullet into his head, the commissioner said.
Officers recovered the handgun, but said they could not say what the caliber was. Police and witnesses said the officers fired no shots.
Second man arested
The driver of the car, Brian Johnston, 30, was arrested at the scene and was not armed, said Ragina Cooper Averella, the police department's director of public affairs.
The car, which had Virginia plates, was registered to Avis and had been reported as having an unauthorized driver, police said.
Johnston was charged with unauthorized use of a vehicle, but he was also wanted on a warrant charging him with first-degree assault and possession of a deadly weapon stemming from an incident in March, police said.
He was being held at the Central Booking and Intake Center last night, awaiting a bail hearing on all three charges.
In praise of body armor
Norris and other officers said Azur was alive because of his department-issued body armor.
"We believed he was saved by his bulletproof vest," Norris said.
O'Malley echoed: "This is a great advertisement for why officers should always, always, always wear bulletproof vests."
Azur is married to Officer Iman Azur, who is assigned to the Southwestern District.
He made the news in 1995 when he was hit in the face by a man after a traffic stop in the 3600 block of Edmondson Ave. He sustained minor facial injuries.
Azur and his partner, Baltimore County Detective Raymond A. McTamany, received the "exceptional police performance" award May 3 from the county police foundation for their work in curbing auto thefts last year.
Azur and McTamany made 286 arrests last year, more than any other detectives on the 30-officer task force.
The task force, based at Baltimore County police headquarters in Towson, was created in 1994 to combat regional auto theft.
"They go wherever the trend or high crime takes them," said Cpl. Vickie Warehime, a county police spokeswoman.
The task force, based on a similar program in Michigan, was the first joint police unit in Central Maryland. It is credited with a reduction of about 50 percent in area car thefts.
In 1995, there were 7,000 auto thefts in Baltimore County compared with 3,000 last year. In the city, there were 13,000 in 1995, compared with 7,000 last year.
Task force vs. car thieves
The shooting yesterday is the latest in a string of violent encounters between task force members and auto theft suspects.
On March 27, a Baltimore County officer shot and wounded the driver of a suspected stolen car in the 2800 block of W. North Ave. in West Baltimore.
The officer fired at the boxed-in vehicle, striking the suspect in the right cheek, after the driver maneuvered in an apparent effort to avoid capture.
On June 3, 1999, a county officer fired several shots into a vehicle on West North Avenue after a car theft suspect rammed an unmarked police car and then attempted to flee.
The car was found several blocks away with blood inside and bullet holes in the front, but the suspect got away.
Unusually violent weekend
Yesterday's shooting follows an unusually violent weekend in the city. The killings were the highest weekend homicide tally since Dec. 3-5 - the weekend before O'Malley took office - when nine people were killed, including five women killed in a house in Northeast Baltimore.
O'Malley, who was elected last year on a promise to slash the city's murder rate, said yesterday that he still aims to make this the first year in a decade where the city records fewer than 300 homicides.
"It drives home the urgency of the strategy," O'Malley said. "The violence underscores why the police department should be a top priority in this city."
Especially on West North Avenue. "There's too much action out there now," said Robert Bonaparte, owner of Bonaparte's Florist Shop, across the street from where Azur was shot. "Too much on this corner."
Sun staff writer Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.