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‘Incredibly unacceptable’: Baltimore County group calls for review of fatal officer-involved shooting on I-83

Tre' Murphy, field organizer for the ACLU of Maryland, speaks at a news conference calling for an independent investigation into the officer-involved fatal shooting of Eric Sopp in November.
Tre' Murphy, field organizer for the ACLU of Maryland, speaks at a news conference calling for an independent investigation into the officer-involved fatal shooting of Eric Sopp in November. (Phil Davis)

A coalition of Baltimore County activist organizations are calling for an independent review of the fatal officer-involved shooting of Eric Sopp on Interstate 83 in November and the police department’s policies on handling instances of mental illness.

The Baltimore County Justice Coalition said at a news conference Thursday that the officer — indentified only as Officer Page by Baltimore County Police per union rules — acted aggressively when he drew his gun while approaching Sopp’s car on I-83 and that he did not properly call the county’s mobile crisis response team, which works with the department in handling cases of mental illness.

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The justice coalition is made up of a number of political and social activist organizations, such as the NAACP and the ACLU of Maryland.

“County officers are supposed to have some training in using active listening and response skills," said Sunday Umoh of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition. “Yet, Officer Page displayed none of those to engage or communicate.”

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“His only interaction with Eric Sopp, who he had been informed was intoxicated [and] suicidal, was to approach with his gun drawn and yelling instructions,” said Umoh, calling the shooting “incredibly unacceptable.”

Sopp’s death has drawn increased attention after police released footage from Page’s body-worn camera, which shows the officer approaching Sopp’s car with his gun drawn before firing eight shots as Sopp attempts to exit the vehicle against Page’s orders.

Sopp’s mother originally called police after her 48-year-old son threatened to harm himself with an ice pick while at her home. She told officers that he was driving drunk and probably heading toward I-83, but that he did not have the ice pick with him when he left her home. The department said last week that no weapon was recovered from Sopp’s body after the shooting, but declined to comment about whether one was recovered from his vehicle or at the scene.

His mother told The Sun in November that Sopp had a history of depression and anxiety.

The Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to press charges against Page after it reviewed the shooting, saying Sopp’s disregard for Page’s commands and his previous suicidal behavior “placed Page in a highly dangerous situation” and that the shooting was “justified under these circumstances.”

The justice coalition is calling for an outside agency to review the case again, claiming the initial review by the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office could’ve been tainted by bias, given the relationship between police and prosecutors. They did not specify what agency they believe should handle the review.

“We’re really saying that we want to be able to put this behind us and bridge the harm that has happened,” said Tre’ Murphy, field organizer for the ACLU of Maryland. “And we want to make sure that the review that happens is one that isn’t entrenched in bias from either [police] internal affairs ... to the state’s attorney.”

Jennifer Peach, a Baltimore County Police spokeswoman, declined to comment Thursday on the calls for an independent review, citing the ongoing internal affairs investigation and potential civil litigation from Sopp’s family.

“Chief [Melissa] Hyatt has released the body-worn camera footage which was consistent with promoting transparency and complied with the new Body Worn Camera Release Policy,” Peach wrote in an email.

Chelsea Crawford, an attorney for Sopp’s mother, said his mother is supportive of the group’s call for an independent review. The family has yet to file a lawsuit against the department.

Melissa Badeker, with Showing Up for Racial Justice Baltimore, said police should have called the mobile crisis response team once it was established that police would be handling a potentially suicidal suspect.

But Umoh said that the county does not have a mobile crisis team working 24/7 and has limited resources, with only a handful of team members to respond to incidents throughout the county. Sopp’s shooting came late at night; his mother first called police at around 9 p.m.

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It’s a problem a number of counties in the state are trying to address. Baltimore City announced its mobile crisis team will go 24/7 after receiving $849,000 in state funding last year.

It is unclear whether Page or any other officers attempted to call the team for assistance. Officers and dispatchers did not mention calling the team in audio recordings released by the department last week about Page’s and the department’s response to the 911 call, but the department noted the recordings and body-worn camera footage were not released in their entirety and were edited for brevity.

Roland Patterson Jr., an attorney with the Baltimore County chapter of the NAACP, said the organization feels “there is a pattern of excessive force” within the department, but stopped short of calling it a systemic problem endemic of the department’s leadership.

“We do think that there are members from within the department who have varied from the standards that the department seeks to adhere to,” Patterson said.

In addition to citing Sopp’s shooting, Patterson said the shooting of Emanuel Oates in Randallstown last year and the use of force in the arrests of Joseph McInnis III and Tyree McCoy in 2017 show the department has not addressed issues of excessive force.

Oates was fatally shot while wielding a machete at a Randallstown Aldi’s, but Patterson said he was originally tackled by police who were investigating an alleged robbery at another shop, for which he attempted to produce a receipt to prove he hadn’t stolen anything. Patterson said Oates pulled out the machete once officers escalated the situation by using force before the fatal shooting.

As for McInnis and McCoy, the department reviewed the officers’ use of force in arresting the two after they were accused of robbing a Woodlawn bar during an officer’s retirement party. Booking photos appeared to show McCoy’s left eye red and swollen and McInnis with a wound to his left eye.

Murphy said the coalition would call on County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and the County Council to support the independent review.

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