Officer hit in daylight gunbattle

Plainclothes policeman, suspect severely injured

April 16, 2008|By Annie Linskey, Brent Jones and Liz F. Kay | Annie Linskey, Brent Jones and Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTERS

A city police officer and a man he was trying to arrest were seriously wounded yesterday during a series of three daylight gunbattles that played out in a West Baltimore neighborhood.

Officers who swarmed Poplar Grove and West Lanvale streets to help their stricken colleague were met by gunfire from a nearby building. Dozens of heavily armed SWAT members took over the streets, forced two schools into lockdown and surrounded the house.

By evening, police said, the plainclothes officer, 25-year-old Mark Spila, was recovering after surgery at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. A bullet shattered Spila's right thigh bone and just missed his femoral artery, an orthopedic surgeon said at a news conference.

Mayor Sheila Dixon, just back in the city from a two-day summit in Washington on tightening gun control measures, called Spila heroic.

"It shows our officers are out every day trying to keep our streets safe," she said at the news conference. "This was the case which emphasizes the need to get illegal guns off our streets."

Outside the hospital, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III praised the way his officers performed. "You have one of the best-trained and motivated police forces in the country," he said. "Our biggest concern is for the people in that area. There are two schools nearby, and we have had to take considerable precaution."

The first bullets were fired about 2:15 p.m. when Spila, part of the department's Southwest gang enforcement unit, and his partner were patrolling a neighborhood near Gwynns Falls Park that is known for Crips activity.

They were in an unmarked car and had pulled over a vehicle that had just made a "high-speed illegal U-turn," said Sterling Clifford, a city police spokesman.

Spila, a 2 1/2 -year veteran, and his partner walked up to the car, hoping to interview the passenger whom Spila recognized as a gang member, Clifford said. As Spila approached the passenger side, the occupant shoved the door open, knocking him back. The man got out and fought with Spila beside the car. He drew a gun and shot Spila, who fired back, striking the man, Clifford said.

While his partner administered first aid to Spila, the bleeding gunman managed to get up and flee into his house on Lanvale Street, then apparently fired at police officers who swarmed the area, Clifford said.

The gunman then bolted out the back of the house and exchanged fire with a group of officers who had surrounded it. He was arrested. Unsure whether there were more gunmen in the house, police called in SWAT teams.

When the incident began to unfold, frantic voices screamed over the police radio as officers described the hectic scene and called for help.

"He's been hit. Mark's been hit. Mark's been hit," one officer shouted.

"10-4. It looks like he's been hit in the artery," said a voice.

"Put pressure on it, brother, put pressure on it."

Then, after dozens of officers raced to the neighborhood, they came under fire from the house.

"I don't know what house the shots are coming from," said a high-pitched voice over the radio.

Then: "Signal 13, Signal 13, there is a sergeant who is possibly involved in a shooting on Lanvale."

Moments later someone called for the police helicopter: "Get Foxtrot up."

Then: "Suspect down."

Next: "Stand by at Shock Trauma."

Many hours later, after state police in Pennsylvania and Maryland rushed the officer's family to Shock Trauma, an upbeat male voice broadcast at 10:20 p.m.: "To all units: Officer is out of surgery and the surgery went well."

A Shock Trauma spokesman said Spila was in critical condition last night.

The suspect, who had been shot several times by more than one officer, was in serious condition last night, according to Agent Donny Moses, a police spokesman. His name was not released.

The driver of the car had run from the gunfire and tried to carjack a motorist in the 700 block of Longwood St., Moses said. A witness called police, who arrested him nearby.

"Three groups of officers all heard gunfire. We still have a lot to work out," Clifford said. "The evidence suggests that we have all the suspects in custody."

One large-caliber handgun was recovered at the scene, he said. It is being traced by the city's gun task force to determine whether it was sold illegally.

Two schools near the shooting scene were on lockdown, meaning that children and teachers had to stay inside under police guard until the area was secure. The schools are Alexander Hamilton Elementary, at 800 Poplar Grove St., and Calverton Elementary/Middle, at 1110 Whitmore Ave., according to schools spokeswoman Edie House.

Jeffery Brandon, 39, was waiting in the 700 block of Poplar Grove St. to see his 6-year-old daughter, who is a student at Alexander Hamilton. "This is ridiculous," he said. "The crime is nothing new, but it's the first time that there's been an officer shot."

He said he was worried about his daughter. "I'm assuming that she's OK. I'm trying not to think too hard on it," he said.

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