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Baltimore County Police release body camera footage of officer fatally shooting a man in Essex in May

This is body camera footage shown at a press conference of a Baltimore County Police shooting in Essex in May.

Baltimore County Police released body camera footage showing an officer fatally shooting an Owings Mills man who ran from officers after a handgun fell out of his vehicle at an Essex townhome complex.

Prosecutors said the footage shows the shooting was justified and do not plan to file criminal charges against the officer.

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The body worn camera footage released Wednesday was from a confrontation involving Robert Johnson Jr., 29, and Police Officer First Class Knight. The police said Knight was dispatched May 16 in response to an anonymous caller reporting a group of youths drinking and being “chaotic.”

Robert Johnson Jr., 29
Robert Johnson Jr., 29 (Handout / HANDOUT)

The camera video shows Knight approaching the rear of Johnson’s car at night. Johnson exits the vehicle and a black Remington handgun falls from the car. Johnson turns his back on Knight to reach down and grab the gun, prompting the officer to say “Whoa, no” before he raises his weapon and fires three shots at Johnson.

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Screaming is heard in the background and Knight calls for backup as Johnson begins to run away.

The footage then shows Johnson running several feet away from the officer and his vehicle. Knight fires five more shots as Johnson raises his handgun, and then Johnson falls to the ground in front of a neighbor’s door.

Knight repeatedly tells Johnson, who was shot once in the back and twice in the buttocks, to stay on the ground and keep his hands up.

Officer Jennifer Peach, a spokeswoman for the county police department, said the footage release complies with the department’s goal for releasing body-worn camera footage from so-called critical incidents within 30 business days, though the policy also states the State’s Attorney’s Office or Chief Hyatt can withhold the video if they deem it necessary for any reason. Wednesday marks 28 business days since the shooting occurred.

Baltimore County Deputy State’s Attorney Robin Coffin said it’s “always terrible for the community when there’s a loss of life in the community.”

Coffin also said her office reviewed all of the statements from witnesses, residents and police before authorities determined “this is a justified shooting when Mr. Johnson reached for that handgun.”

“It’s a tragedy for everyone, but no criminal charges will come,” Coffin said.

Coffin said Johnson pointed the gun at Knight at one point. A finger injury on Johnson at the scene also indicates his finger was on the trigger, Coffin said. Johnson had been released recently from federal prison for a weapons charge and he wouldn’t have been allowed to carry a weapon, Coffin said, suggesting that could explain Johnson’s attempts to flee.

Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said “everything about this incident was difficult for everyone involved.” Hyatt called the video “difficult to watch,” and she said “the pain of this incident is felt by everyone involved.”

Col. Robert McCullough from the police department’s Criminal Investigations Bureau reiterated the incident remains under investigation and “additional facts may come to light.” McCullough said the 911 caller reported Johnson was driving around the area while intoxicated. The gun carried by Johnson also turned up in a database as stolen from Virginia, McCullough added.

Johnson’s family declined to comment Wednesday.

In May, relatives said Johnson was celebrating his cousin’s 15th birthday when he dented a neighbor’s vehicle while trying to park. Johnson told the man he would pay for repairs, relatives said, but the discussion became argumentative. The neighbor called police and reported Johnson was armed.

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The department’s initial release on the incident stated “the first arriving officer was confronted with an armed suspect and discharged his weapon.” According to police, officers were responding to a 911 call about “a nuisance related to a large crowd of people” at the complex.

Alexis Jackson, a cousin of Johnson’s who witnessed the shooting, said Johnson wasn’t a threat. Johnson’s brother, 20-year-old Freddie Jackson, was inside their home trying to guide children upstairs when one of Knight’s bullets pierced the door and struck his leg, relatives said. The children carried the man upstairs and applied a tourniquet to his leg using a T-shirt. Jackson was hospitalized and later released.

The relatives said they have hired a lawyer.

Hyatt said “it’s incredibly concerning” that Jackson was injured as a result of “split second decisions” made by Knight.

The police said Knight is a 24-year veteran assigned to the Essex Precinct with no prior officer-involved shootings. The department initially placed Knight on administrative leave, but McCullough said he has resumed his patrol duties in the Essex precinct. The department typically does not provide first names of officers, citing an agreement with the police union.

Baltimore County in the past few years has faced scrutiny for actions taken by responding police, including several officer-involved shootings. Traffic data shows Black drivers are disproportionately stopped by police, and the U.S. Department of Justice sued the county, alleging written tests for officer recruits was biased against Black applicants.

The body camera footage release comes days after County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Police Chief Hyatt announced the department is initiating several measures aimed at reform, including requiring officers to report unnecessary use of force, establishing a public database on police complaints and traffic stops, and hiring an outside party to analyze recruitment.

Olszewski, a Democrat whose youngest brother serves in the police department, also established a work group during his first year in office to examine potentially discriminatory practices by the police department’s predominantly white male workforce.

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