The badge of a Baltimore police officer deflected a bullet fired by an assailant last night during a struggle in a dark alley, leaving the officer slightly injured and sending police on an intense search for the attacker, authorities said.
Officer James Howard was treated last night at Maryland Shock Trauma Center for bruises and minor injuries and released, officials said.
The outcome could have been far worse.
"He's very lucky," Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said. "The badge is going in the police museum."
Howard was patrolling the 2900 block of Hilldale Ave. near Reisterstown Road in Northwest Baltimore about 6 p.m. when he got out of his car and began searching the area on foot, Norris said.
A few minutes later, the officer noticed a large man in the alley, and called dispatchers to say he had spotted something "hinky," Norris said.
The officer approached the man and ordered him to come forward. But the man refused and suddenly attacked Howard, who gave a preliminary account of the shooting to investigators at Shock Trauma, Norris said.
Howard called for help over his police radio but was not heard from again, Norris said. The two struggled, and the attacker seized the officer's gun and fired one round.
The bullet bounced off the officer's badge, part of which fell to the ground, Norris said. The fight continued down the alley as they wrestled for control of the weapon.
Howard grabbed the handgun from the suspect and pushed a button that ejected the weapon's ammunition magazine. The officer then fired one round into the air to empty its chamber, the commissioner said.
"It's a good tactic," Norris said, adding that officers are taught to eject their magazines if they are involved in fights and might lose the weapon.
"He had the presence of mind to empty his own pistol," Norris added. "That's very good."
After the officer emptied the weapon, the suspect ran away, and Howard fell to the ground, where other officers found him, Norris said.
Police launched an extensive search for the attacker. Dozens of officers drove through nearby streets as others with dogs combed alleys. A police helicopter flew overheard, training a spotlight on the ground.
Although police declined to discuss details of their search, Norris said they are "pretty sure he's still around here."
Howard, 24, graduated from the police academy last month and was assigned to the Northwestern District, officials said. He previously worked as a police officer in Detroit.
He is the second officer wounded this year while on duty.
Officer Chris Houser, also of the Northwestern District, was shot and seriously wounded in July as he was making a drug arrest. That shooting shocked many residents because the officer was gunned down from across the street by someone trying to break up the arrest of a cousin, police said.
But those who live near the site of the shooting last night said they were not surprised that an officer had been wounded while checking the dark alleys, which are often full of drug dealers.
"I stay in the house and don't go out much," said Tracey Hopkins, 30, who lives near the scene of the shooting. "This is just an off-the-hook neighborhood. There's lots of drug activity. There's a lot of it. There's just too much drugs."
John W. Blake, 40, said he often hurries home after getting off the bus to avoid teen-age boys selling drugs on the street corners.
"It bothers me," Blake said. "I get off the bus, and they're yelling that they're selling this or they got that."