Man fatally shot by off-duty officer was also shot by police 20 years earlier

The fatal shooting of 44-year-old Robert Jerome Howard in a West Baltimore liquor store on Friday was not the first time he had been shot by police who said he pulled a weapon.

Twenty years ago, Howard was critically wounded by two officers, who said he drew a weapon and fired at them.


The circumstances then were hotly disputed. Howard was acquitted by a jury of criminal charges, and he then unsuccessfully sued the officers for $12 million. He claimed he was unarmed and had his arms raised.

This time, there is less ambiguity, as the incident was captured on surveillance cameras.

Arnetta Hamilton said she can't understand what her cousin was thinking last Friday when he strolled into the Green Tree liquor store holding a replica gun. Howard lived with her until October, and she believed he was doing well.

"I just think he wasn't where he should've been mentally, but he didn't have the intention to go out there and hurt nobody," Hamilton said. "To have a fake gun, that should tell you something."

Former police officer Stephen Cohen remembers Howard well. He was one of two officers who shot Howard after they say he fired a gun at them as they approached, believing he was an armed robbery suspect.

Cohen, who now lives in Florida, recalls the particulars: "1500 block of Madison Street. Dec. 16, 1996. 23:39 hours." He remembers Howard falling to the ground after being shot by his partner, but still clutching the weapon.

The fallout prompted Cohen to leave the agency: He said he was accused at the civil trial of being corrupt and racist. Howard's attorney highlighted that Howard was shot in the back, and alleged that the officers planted a "drop gun" on him. One witness adamantly testified that Howard did not have a gun. It was all lies designed to stoke tensions, Cohen says.

"The most upsetting thing about it was that he had the audacity to come after us, like we did something wrong," Cohen says in a phone interview from Fort Lauderdale, where he is a firearms instructor. "He pulls a gun, we shoot him, and now he's accusing us, because he did nothing wrong and we're the bad people."

"I saw the writing on the wall. I decided, I can't live my life like this. This is not what I want for my life," he said.

Howard grew up in the Reservoir Hill area, the oldest of four children, according to Hamilton. She said he grew up without a father, but had a strong family support system. "I was always concerned about what was going on with him, and wanting to make sure he'd be OK," she said.

She said he struggled with substance abuse, though she doesn't know particulars. Court records show he was in and out of jail, and at one point his listed address was a North Baltimore shelter. His longest prison sentence came in 2000, when he was sentenced to 10 years with all but three years suspended for a drug charge. Four years later, he was sent back for four more years on a probation violation.

His mother died seven years ago, then his sister was killed in a fire. In recent years, his cases picked up. Assault in 2011, drug possession in 2012, theft charges in 2013, and more drug and theft charges in 2014.

In Friday's shooting, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the officer "did the absolute right thing." Two men claimed to have seen the incident, and told media outlets that Howard and the officer had argued in the street before Howard ran inside the store for safety. But surveillance footage proved that account to be false.

Cohen said the civil case with Howard 20 years earlier caused him to lose faith in his role as a police officer.


"This was life-changing. You're a young white guy, being crucified by a whole community of black people saying the only reason you shot him is because he was black," Cohen said.

"At the end of the day, you can't help people who don't want your help, and can't help themselves," he said. "I was saying, 'What am I doing in this picture? I can't change anything. I'm going to end up miserable, bitter or dead in jail."

But Cohen has never second-guessed the shooting itself. "You do what you gotta do. Rather him than me. If somebody's shooting at you, you're going to shoot back. You're going to do what you have to do to defend yourself," he said.

For her part, Hamilton says police have been too quick to describe Howard's shooting Friday as necessary and correct.

"They are gloating about killing a man, like it's something to brag about," she said. "They're saying he's a hero for killing this man. … Even if you're trained to shoot, is that what you really want?"