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Footage from fatal Baltimore police shooting shows standoff, threat to kids, decision to use lethal force

Footage from the body-worn cameras of police officers at the scene of a barricade hostage situation in West Baltimore on Friday, in which a man was fatally shot by a SWAT officer, shows key portions of the standoff. The footage was not released to the public. (Baltimore Sun video)

By the time SWAT Officer Zachary Wein arrived outside the house where a hostage situation was playing out in West Baltimore early Friday morning, his supervisors had determined that lethal force was necessary.

Barricaded inside a rowhouse bedroom in the 1000 block of N. Fulton Avenue, Reno Joseph Owens Jr., 39, of no fixed address, was highly agitated and threatening his cousin's two small children — a 4-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy — with a 12-inch butcher knife.

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Patrol officers inside had not had any luck negotiating with Owens over the course of nearly an hour as they waited for the SWAT officers to arrive, police say, and the children were in imminent danger. Body camera footage shows that Owens was holding them in his lap as he brandished the knife, screaming at officers and rambling in what police and his family believed was a drug-altered state of mind.

As Wein walked up to the home, an M4 precision long gun in his arms, his sergeant — body camera rolling — met him on the sidewalk and addressed him bluntly.

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"I want you to be calm, I want you to be relaxed, and I want you to walk in there and kill this guy," the sergeant said. "There's no talking to him. He's highly agitated."

Within minutes, Wein had shot Owens dead with a single bullet to the head from the entrance to the bedroom about 15 feet away, all while Owens held the two children in his arms.

The footage from the sergeant's body camera, which captured the sidewalk exchange, was part of a broader collection of officer video gathered from the scene that day. Other footage captured patrol officers negotiating with Owens before the SWAT team arrived, and Wein stepping into the bedroom and briefly addressing Owens before firing.

On Tuesday, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he would not release the footage, in contrast to other recent police shootings, because he did not want to subject the family — and especially the two small children — to additional trauma. The family members have not been identified.

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However, he allowed reporters to view about a half-hour of footage behind closed doors.

"It's not easy to watch on video a police officer discharge his firearm to stop a threat like he did, but we thought it was important for you all to see, as much as we could share with you, the timeline of events," he said.

Davis said Wein and the other officers involved saved the lives of the children and "exhibited courage, bravery and grace under pressure under very, very challenging, difficult circumstances."

A man who answered the door at the home Tuesday and described himself as a family friend said they did not want to comment.

The footage begins as an officer first arrived at the home, after the family had called for help about 6:45 a.m.

The mother of the children is frantically trying to unlock the front door to let the officers inside.

"Let the police do what they doing!" she yells to another family member.

Inside, the little girl screams for her parents as officers approach the bedroom. Owens, shown clearly holding a knife, appears angry.

"We're just trying to get you some help, buddy, that's all," an officer says at one point from the doorway.

Owens' demeanor changes by the minute, his knife glinting in the officer's flashlight. He tells the officers to leave. He tells them to shoot him. He yells out that the children are dead. He talks about being a "gangster." He starts singing "Rock-a-Bye Baby" in a manic cadence.

Back outside, the SWAT sergeant, whom police would not identify, tells Wein — a 14-year veteran of the force who has been on the SWAT team since 2009 — that it "has to be a precise, accurate shot."

He tells Wein that Owens "could kill the girl at any second."

A SWAT lieutenant, also not identified and the commanding officer at the scene, gets on the radio to his supervisor. "There's an imminent possibility we're gonna blast this dude," he says.

The sergeant says the time to consider "less lethal" options is over. "Let's make sure we're not forcing it if we don't have to," the lieutenant says.

Wein climbs the stairs inside the home, the body camera of the officer behind him rolling. At the bedroom door, Wein raises his gun as he tells Owens he doesn't want to hurt anyone. Wein's camera is also rolling, but police said the view was obstructed by his raised arms and weapon.

Owens can be heard but not seen in the footage from the camera of the officer behind Wein: "I'd rather go out like this," Owens shouts, just as Wein fires.

The officers then rush into the room and separate the children from Owens.

Owens is slumped and bloodied in his chair as the knife is pulled from his hand.

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