Suspect shot, killed during drug arrest

City officer says unarmed man struggled with him

Conflicting accounts

Incident occurred 4 blocks from police shooting Friday

February 06, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore police officer shot and killed an apparently unarmed man last night during a struggle as he was being arrested for allegedly selling drugs.

The death came a day after an officer and drug suspect were injured in a shootout four blocks away. Last night, a crowd of East Baltimore residents walked the streets shouting "O'Malley is a killer," referring to Mayor Martin O'Malley, and "This was police revenge."

It was the seventh fatal shooting involving police since January 1999.

Police said Officer Craig Klein was sitting in a house in the 1600 block of Lansing St. about 5: 30 p.m. when he saw what he thought was a man selling drugs. Klein, on the force three years, chased the man into an alleyway that leads to the 1600 block of Federal St., where a scuffle began, said police spokeswoman Agent Ragina L. Cooper.

The officer and the suspect wrestled in a half-foot of snow for several minutes, and the man pinned the officer to the ground and said, "Don't make me use my stuff," Cooper said.

Fearing for his life, Klein fired once, striking the victim in his neck, police said.

O'Malley, reached late last night, called the shooting "tragic" and responded to the crowd's criticism. "Our officers get shot at, and I only have to take insulting words," he said. "I think their job is a lot harder than mine."

Police did not release the suspect's name last night, but relatives at the scene identified him as Ralph Chambers, 34, of the 1600 block of Lansing St. Relatives said he had three children younger than 10.

"This is a disgrace," said his brother, Paul Chambers. "O'Malley made it clear it was not going to happen like this. They don't have to kill them to get them off the corner."

Cooper said police found 30 capsules of suspected cocaine on the victim, and relatives acknowledged that Chambers sold drugs "because he could not get a job."

Tavon Powell, 18, who identified himself as a friend of Ralph Chambers, said the officer had no reason to shoot.

"They don't use Mace anymore, they don't use club sticks, they just pull their guns out and shoot people," Powell said. "I think it's retaliation."

That sentiment was repeated last night by people who claimed they had witnessed the shooting and said the victim was shot as he tried to run from the officer.

"He was fleeing," said Robert Sparks, 33, of the 1500 block of Broadway. "He got up to run, got several feet away and then I heard" the gunshot.

Sparks said a brief struggle occurred before the shooting. Another witness, who did not want to be identified, said: "From what I saw, the police did what they needed to do."

Cooper said several witnesses were taken to the city's homicide unit and at least one corroborated the police officer's version of events.

A group of about 20 huddled not far from the crime scene minutes after the shooting and shouted threats of retribution against Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel and O'Malley. At least one plainclothes detective retrieved a handful of handcuffs, but Cooper said no arrests were made at the scene. The onlookers had dispersed by 11 p.m.

Neither Daniel or O'Malley visited the shooting scene last night, but when reached at home, the police commissioner said, "People direct hostility at me all the time, and it's not unusual."

Daniel said that based on preliminary information, it appears the officer acted in self-defense. "I don't know enough about what occurred, but certainly I have been given a preliminary briefing and understand the officer was in a struggle and defending himself," Daniel said.

Daniel said he did not visit the scene because he might have to review the case.

"We need to support these officers because they are risking their lives every night out there," said Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "The Eastern District is a very dangerous district. The price for making Baltimore City safe is going to be paid for with our blood."

O'Malley said he did not know all the circumstances last night, but acknowledged police often face difficult decisions.

"If officers are attacked or pinned to the ground, officers have a right to defend themselves," O'Malley said. "It's a very tough job."

Eastern District Major James L. Hawkins downplayed residents' reaction to the shooting because of their heightened emotions.

Friday night, Eastern District Officer Jerry Kevin Weaver was shot in the right arm in a struggle while police were trying to arrest a drug suspect in the 1700 block of N. Chapel St.

The suspect, identified as Samuel Keith Thompson, was shot in the foot and thigh when Weaver's partner, Officer Louis Holley, returned fire. Hawkins and Daniel said that incident and last night's police shooting highlight the neighborhood's drug problem. Police officials said they are seriously attacking the problem.

The incident last night was the second fatal shooting by police this year.

Cooper said Klein will be placed on administrative duty while city homicide detectives and the state's attorney's office review the shooting.

O'Malley said observers should base their opinions on facts.

"I don't think any thinking person would look at the circumstances in this case and jump to a wild conclusion that there was anything retaliatory about this," he said.

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