A 39-year-old Baltimore Police officer, who joined the department two years ago to make a difference, was clinging to life Thursday night after being ambushed and shot while sitting in her patrol car.
At a news conference outside the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said investigators had located a vehicle believed to be involved and were questioning potential suspects. Flanked by family of Officer Keona Holley, including her two daughters, he implored the community to come forward with tips to help close the case.
Holley’s sister gave an impassioned speech about the violence that continues to rip through Baltimore. Lawanda Sykes said her sister was “a mother, a daughter, a sister and a woman” who had a lifelong goal of becoming a police officer.
“We gotta do better in this city,” Sykes said. “Baltimore, we are killing ourselves. It should not be like this.”
Holley was working overtime on the midnight shift but not responding to any calls when police believe at least one gunman ran up behind her marked patrol car and opened fire. The shooting took place around 1:30 a.m. in the 4400 block of Pennington Ave., in a residential area of the Curtis Bay neighborhood.
Dr. Thomas Scalea said Holley was “critically ill” and on “full life support” in the intensive care unit.
“These are injuries that are going to evolve over some time,” said Scalea, Shock Trauma’s physician-in-chief.
Harrison said police did not have a motive, but he said Holley appeared to be targeted since it was clear she was working as a police officer. A reward of $118,000 is being offered for tips leading to an arrest.
Friends of Holley and fellow officers gathered outside of Shock Trauma in downtown Baltimore. They included Qiana Mark, a friend of Holley’s for over 20 years, who went to the hospital to pray for her friend and offer support and called her a “good person.”
”I don’t understand. I don’t get it. I hope and pray they find whoever did this,” Mark said.
Holley was found by other officers in a patrol car after it apparently accelerated and crashed following the shooting. A video posted to social media of the apparent aftermath showed a patrol car on a playground at Curtis Bay Park.
Holley joined the Police Department in 2019, at the age of 37. In a 2020 interview with the website Insider, Holley said she joined the department to help change officers’ relationship with the community.
“I feel like Baltimore city police officers have a bad name about themselves,” she said. “And we have to change that — and change it together.”
Roshawn Taylor worked with Holley at her previous job at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, where Holley was a nursing assistant.
“I just can’t believe it,” said Taylor, pausing to hold back tears. “I remember when she first tried out for the police department. She had problems passing the physical, but determined Keona, she kept at it.”
Taylor called Holley a “good cop,” and recalled how Holley often posted some of her positive interactions with the community on Facebook.
Taylor said Holley is also a grandmother, and helps take care of her mother.
Harrison said the shooting was not captured on video, but that cameras picked up information that helped police identify a vehicle. That vehicle was located Thursday afternoon and was being processed, while Harrison said “several” people were being interviewed. He asked that the public continue to provide tips.
At the shooting scene Thursday, a small group of officers and cadets arrived in vans and searched the area around Pennington Avenue for security cameras. They knocked on the doors of homes with cameras perched on windowsills and doorbells, seeking any clues about the crime.
Kevin Kreamer, who lives across the street from Curtis Bay Park, said he heard a loud crash around 2 a.m. Now, he knows it was the officer’s patrol vehicle, smashing through a chain-link fence and careening over a ledge toward the park’s playground.
A car mirror and other debris were scattered below the park’s jungle gym, together with an instruction sheet for a neck brace. Across the street, broken glass littered the parking lot beside the Food Mart shop.
Kreamer said his wife heard several gunshots, Kreamer said, perhaps four or five.
“It’s terrible,” Kreamer said. “My kids play at this park sometimes.”
Shortly after the shooting, about 30 police cars were in the neighborhood, blocking off the perimeter of the park. But around daybreak, they were gone, Kreamer said.
In an Instagram video depicting the immediate aftermath, the man filming urges others not to call police to report the shooting and says police harass people in his community.
“Don’t call the police, don’t,” he says.
“We can’t let him [sic] die,” a woman responds.
Council President Nick Mosby spoke of being angry about the shooting.
“There’s been a lot of divisive talk over the past several years around police, around connecting with our community, around violence. But tonight, this is reality,” Mosby said. “The reality is, men and women do their best job to put on Baltimore Police Department uniforms and go to protect our citizens. … We should all take this very personally.
“I ask the citizens of Baltimore, if you do not have information [that could solve the case], to just pray.”
The police department’s response to this shooting contrasts sharply with its 2017 lockdown of Harlem Park after the death of city police Detective Sean Suiter. For days, across a several block stretch of the neighborhood, people were wrongly stopped, searched and sometimes detained during the investigation, a subsequent report found.
Kenneth Thompson, who heads the monitoring team that is helping implement the police department consent decree, and who helped write the scathing Harlem Park report, went to the scene of Thursday morning’s shooting. He declined to comment on how the department’s response compared to that in 2017.
Suiter was shot the day before he was to appear in front of a grand jury investigating the department’s Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal, and he had been informed by the FBI that he had been accused of misconduct. Two external reviews found Suiter shot himself. But prosecutors said that they were still pursuing evidence against a possible suspect, and Suiter’s family and attorney strongly maintain that Suiter was killed. His death remains classified as a homicide.
Maryland state Senate President Bill Ferguson, who represents Curtis Bay, said in an interview on WBAL Radio Thursday morning that the shooting is further evidence that there needs to be a rethinking of the strategies for combating violence in Baltimore. And that includes having state and city leaders working together, rather than pointing fingers and casting blame.
”Things are broken and the trajectory that we are on is totally unsustainable,” Ferguson said. “It’s time to hit reset, and something has to give.”
Ferguson suggested that the governor, mayor, police commissioner, state’s attorney and U.S. attorney all need to redouble their efforts to work together to help the city.
”As we move into the new year, the trajectory has to change,” the Baltimore Democrat said.
Ferguson said there needs to be a balance between making arrests and prosecuting criminals and investing in communities to prevent the root causes of crime.
Ferguson said he visited the Southern District police station early Thursday morning, where officers were “largely in shock.”
Joe Reid, owner of the Platinum Vehicles auto repair shop a few blocks from the scene, said they’ve had some trouble recently with break-ins. Last month, a thief took car batteries and a catalytic converter from the shop, he said.
Of late, police officers have been stationed along Pennington Avenue and in adjacent parking lots, and some have come by to check on the store.
But the answer to the community’s problems may not come from police officers, said Reid, 34. Setting young people on positive paths with educational and vocational opportunities and welcoming community centers might be a good place to start, he said. He said he always thinks of the saying: “Idle time is the devil’s time.”
”The problem isn’t the situation,” he said. “It isn’t that one incident. No. It’s a bigger thing. And they need to stop masking that and go to the bigger problem, to the root of it.”
Watching young people in the community turn away from positive choices and toward criminal activity can be troubling, said Reid, who lives in Baltimore County.
”As a younger Black man, it’s just hard,” he said. “It’s hard to witness.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.