The Baltimore County police officer who fatally shot a man during a November traffic stop on Interstate 83 will not face criminal charges and is back on active duty, the department announced Thursday, releasing body-worn camera footage as well as 911 and police radio recordings.
Police tracked down the man, 48-year-old Eric Sopp, after receiving a call Nov. 26 that Sopp had threatened to kill himself and may have been driving while intoxicated.
In the footage, Officer Page — the department typically withholds officers’ first names — can be seen with his weapon drawn walking up to Sopp’s Toyota Camry as they’re pulled over on the shoulder of I-83. The officer orders Sopp to place his hands on the dashboard and turn off the vehicle. While some of the exchange between the two is inaudible, it appears Sopp twice tells the officer that he will not turn off his car.
During the tense exchange, it appears Sopp says he will get out of the vehicle, against the protests of Page, who instructs him to remain inside the car.
As Sopp gets out of the vehicle, Page fires his weapon at least eight times and Sopp collapses. Page says over the police radio transmission after the shooting that Sopp “advanced on me.”
Police spokeswoman Sgt. Vickie Warehime said that after Sopp was shot, police did not recover a weapon from his body, but she could not say whether a weapon was recovered from the vehicle or the scene due to an ongoing internal affairs investigation into Page’s actions. She did not have a timeline as to when that investigation will be concluded.
Warehime said the department handed the case over to the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, which has decided not to file criminal charges or take any further action against Page.
She added that she could not comment on whether Page could face any internal punishment, but he is back on active duty since he is not facing criminal charges.
In a letter to Police Chief Melissa Hyatt from Baltimore County Deputy State’s Attorney Robin Coffin dated Dec. 16 and obtained Thursday by The Baltimore Sun, Coffin wrote that Sopp’s erratic driving, previous suicidal behavior and disregard for Page’s commands make the shooting “justified.”
“The suspect’s erratic behavior, his charge out of the car and knowing that the suspect was suicidal placed Officer Page in a highly dangerous situation,” the letter reads. “The shooting of Eric Sopp was tragic, but justified under these circumstances. Accordingly, this office will take no further action.”
Chelsea Crawford, an attorney for Sopp’s family, said that the family is exploring their legal options, but that the footage released Thursday shows Page used an “excess, lethal amount of force that was completely unnecessary.”
“He knew Mr. Sopp didn’t have a weapon on him,” said Crawford, pointing to the fact a dispatcher told investigating officers prior to the traffic stop that there was “no indication” Sopp had the ice pick in the vehicle with him.
“The body camera footage shows that the officer who shot Mr. Sopp had his gun drawn and finger on the trigger when he approached Mr. Sopp’s Car,” Crawford wrote in a statement. “When the unarmed Mr. Sopp, with nothing in his hands, got out of the car after the officer told him not to, the officer shot him eight times.”
Sopp’s mother, Catherine Sopp, wrote in a statement that she didn’t think when she called 911 “to protect my son and others from him driving drunk, it would cost him his life.”
“There was no reason for the officer to shoot and kill him,” she continued.
In the 911 call released Thursday, a woman who identified herself as Sopp’s mother said the Parkton man had previously threatened to hurt himself with an ice pick, but he’d left the ice pick at home. During the call, Sopp’s mother continues to press police to find her son while they take down her information about the initial incident, saying at one point “he’s out there driving drunk.”
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A dispatcher communicating with the investigating officers over police radio could be heard saying that there was no indication Sopp had the ice pick on him.
Sopp’s mother told The Baltimore Sun in November that Sopp had a history of depression and anxiety and she’d called police to file a missing persons report after Sopp broke several phones and threatened to hurt himself with an ice pick before leaving the residence in a vehicle.
Initially, police gave few details about the fatal interaction between Page and Sopp, saying they were continuing to investigate what happened while Page was placed on administrative leave.
The department had denied a previous request from The Baltimore Sun, made the day after the shooting, for the footage and 911 calls released Thursday, writing in response that the release of the footage “has the possibility of adversely affecting the on-going investigation in this case.”
Warehime said the release of the footage Thursday is the result of the department’s newly implemented policy regarding the release of body-worn camera footage and that the department is “trying to be more proficient” in handling the release of camera footage as the policy is applied.
Earlier this month, the department announced its first policy outlining rules for releasing body-worn camera footage. Under the policy, County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt can decide to release footage from “critical incidents" within 30 days of the event. However, the policy also still allows the department to withhold footage related to open investigations.
This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Sgt. Vickie Warehime.