Fatal shooting not first time officer was overpowered

The Baltimore Sun

Tuesday's fatal shooting of a 61-year-old man by Baltimore police was the second time in four years that the same city officer had been overpowered by a suspect who attempted to steal her weapon.

Records from the earlier incident show that serious questions were raised about that case. All charges against the suspect were dropped, with prosecutors citing "insufficient evidence" despite the fact that the two victims and key eyewitnesses were city officers. The man's defense attorney also charged that documents related to the case had been "materially changed and rewritten by officers in significant authority in the Eastern District," a claim that is not addressed in the records.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said yesterday that a departmental review found that the officer had acted appropriately in the 2005 incident.

About 9 p.m. Tuesday, police said, a female officer responded to a domestic disturbance in the 2600 block of Orleans St. A citizen later called 911 to report that the officer needed assistance. Agent Donny Moses, a police spokesman, said the backup officer saw 61-year-old Joseph Forrest holding the officer in a headlock, trying to take her weapon.

Police declined to identify the officer, noting a new policy of withholding the names of those involved in shootings. However, court records obtained by The Baltimore Sun show the officer was Traci McKissick, 29, a five-year veteran.

The backup officer, a male sergeant with 15 years on the force, ordered the man to stop, then fired one shot, striking Forrest in the upper torso. Moses said Forrest - who previous court documents list as 5-foot-8, 150 pounds - fell on top of the female officer, continuing to grab at the weapon. She was able to fire multiple shots at him, striking him in the legs, Moses said. Forrest was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Witnesses, including Howard Beverly, 69, a retired maintenance worker who lives on the block, said police fired more than 10 shots. Police confirmed yesterday that both officers involved in Tuesday's shooting are on administrative leave while the shooting is investigated, a standard practice.

Four years ago this week, McKissick was one of two officers who pulled over a vehicle in the 3000 block of Pulaski Highway and observed suspected drugs. Court records show the suspect, Timothy Lee Faith, pushed McKissick's partner, Officer Jack H. Odom Jr., into an oncoming car and climbed back into his vehicle. McKissick jumped into the passenger side as the man began driving at a high rate of speed.

Police said Faith, described then as 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, grabbed for her gun, twisting it out of her hand and pointing it at her head and chest as she kicked at him. She "attempted to utilize departmentally taught handgun retention techniques to no avail. Due to the overwhelming size of the suspect, the techniques were not successful," Odom wrote in the initial incident report.

The weapon was discharged, with a bullet fired into a seat during the struggle, according to court documents.

The report shows Faith then threw the gun out of the driver's side window and jumped out. He was caught, with handcuffs still dangling from one of his wrists, inside a bar on North Montford Avenue. McKissick's .40-caliber Glock pistol was never found, police confirmed yesterday.

Faith was indicted on charges of assaulting the officer, disarming a law enforcement officer, escaping from custody, reckless endangerment, and resisting arrest. All charges were dropped in February 2006.

Defense attorney Warren A. Brown, who court documents show was aggressively pursuing inconsistencies in officers' statements a month before the case was dropped, said those questions were key in getting the charges dismissed.

Odom resigned from the force and received a 10-day suspended jail sentence after being accused of assaulting a man and two women outside a Federal Hill pizza shop in October 2005.

Robert Cherry, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, said it was too early in the investigation of Tuesday's shooting to determine whether the two instances of being overpowered indicated potential training deficiencies. He noted that patrol officers may respond to dozens of calls in a single night.

"I would hope people would recognize that in all police work, every situation can change from minute to minute, and it only takes a matter of seconds for a situation to escalate," Cherry said. "I think its imprudent to compare the incidents, and at this time we stand by both of the officers."

Six people have been shot by police this year, three of them fatally.

For decades, Baltimore police have identified officers involved in shootings. But noting increasing access to private information on the Internet, the department's public affairs office has adopted an informal policy of not releasing names until an internal investigation has been conducted, and then only when an officer is found to have committed a crime. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said any names may be released at his discretion, as was the case last month when an officer was shot in the jaw in Seton Hill.

Officials, with the support of the city police union, note that the FBI and police departments in New York City, Philadelphia and Atlanta have taken the same stance. They say 23 threats against officers were made in 2008, though the nature of those types of threats remains unclear.

Critics argue that the decision promotes secrecy and hinders the department's efforts to build trust in the community. Last week, Bealefeld was summoned to a City Council hearing to discuss the policy, though he faced little questioning from council members, who largely supported the decision.

Police provided a report yesterday of the Feb. 18, 2005, incident with not only McKissick's name redacted but also that of the suspect who was arrested and charged with assault on police. Moses said the suspect's name was removed in order to prevent reporters from looking up the case and potentially learning the identity of the police officer.

David Rocah, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said police are "actively seeking to prevent citizens from being informed."

"As the Baltimore City Police Department well knows, police reports like this are public record documents," Roca said. "That's central to our system of justice in this country. People can't be secretly charged with crimes, so their redaction of that document was improper, and the fact that they did it to serve the illegitimate goal of shielding names of police officers [who shoot people] only doubles the wrongdoing here."

Sun reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

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