Four decades later, Baltimore police recall the death of one of their own, and the changes the case brought

The 1974 death of Baltimore police officer Jimmy Halcomb brought change to his department

The death of a Baltimore police officer in the line of duty 40 years ago remained potent in the memory of the mourners drawn to a Perry Hall church Saturday to recall their fallen comrade.

Officer Jimmy Halcomb was 31. He was the father of two young girls; his wife was pregnant with a third. He was a patrolman in the Western District called to a report of shots fired on a very warm Good Friday, April 16, 1976, at less than a minute before 7 p.m.

John Earl Williams, who police said had broken up with his girlfriend recently and wanted to impress her by killing police officers, was armed with ammunition he had stolen during his brief service in the National Guard.

The teenaged sniper stood in the third floor of his rowhouse at Carey and Lombard streets and opened fire with a high-powered rifle loaded with armor-piercing bullets. Officer Halcomb took cover behind a parked car.

One bullet ripped through the vehicle and caught Halcomb in the neck.

The gunman kept firing, wounding five other officers and a civilian.

Halcomb's wife, Angela, their three daughters, Carrie, Jacqueline and Amanda, and two grandchildren, attended the memorial at Perry Hall Baptist Church Saturday afternoon.

Angela Halcomb wore black, with a red rose and a heart-shaped locket that contained a picture of her husband.

"I realize now he didn't have a chance," she said. "I realized now it was time to step forward and talk about it. I wanted this to be a life celebration for Jimmy. I thought the service was everything I wanted it to be."

She is a member of the church and helped prepare the afternoon event and the meal that followed it.

"Jimmy gave his life, but things came out better for the entire police force as a result of his death," she said.

Dozens of Halcomb's friends and retired police officers shared their recollections of that 1976 evening.

"Lombard and Carey has been on our minds for 40 years," said retired police Lt. Joseph Key. "It was the single most significant incident in the Baltimore City Police Department from the standpoint of what grew out of it."

He recalled that the city had been on edge after a gunman had walked into a temporary City Hall building at Calvert and Water streets a few days earlier and killed City Councilman Dominic Leone.

He said police communication protocol was heavily compromised that night.

"If you want to know what chaos was like, it was Lombard and Carey," he said. "Everything that can go wrong went wrong that night."

What grew out of the incident, Key said, were improved police procedures and the creation of a Quick Response Team, also called a SWAT team, which Baltimore police officials had been reluctant to implement.

Retired detective Stephen Tabeling recounted that police fired 429 shots that night. The sniper got off 19 rounds.

"We didn't know how many people were in the building," said Tabeling. "We weren't prepared ... When I got there it was total chaos."

He recalled that Channel 13's Al Sanders and Jerry Turner had arrived with sets of lights to illuminate the crime scene.

"I made them back off," he said.

At one point, police officers shot out street lights so the sniper could not identify his targets and to give police the ability to get the wounded to a hospital.

By the end of the evening five other police officers, James Brennan, Art Kennel, Neal Splain, Calvin Mencken and Roland Miller, had also been hit by fire. A bystander was also hurt.

Williams surrendered after 47 minutes. He was convicted of first-degree murder and other violations and sentenced to life in prison plus 60 years.

He remains incarcerated.

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