Outcry over police shooting

Husband of woman shot by Howard officers criticizes use of force

May 02, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

Police overreacted in shooting a 62-year-old Howard County woman at a senior citizens apartment complex Wednesday, the woman's husband said yesterday.

Bobby Harris, a Columbia resident, lashed out at the actions police took against his wife, Pearl, calling the incident a "travesty of justice."

"She was only 105 pounds. ... She could have been subdued without a gunshot or any type of violence like that," he said. "Somebody in the building could have gotten hurt. ... It's something that needs to be and hopefully will be addressed."

At a news briefing yesterday at police headquarters, Police Chief William J. McMahon said the officers acted "appropriately" because they believed that they were in danger. In releasing new details of the incident, police said Harris lunged at one of the officers with a foot-long kitchen knife.

Police also released the names of the two officers involved. Officer Matthew Mehrer and Pfc. Mark Baxter went to the complex - Park View at Snowden River in the 8600 block of Snowden River Parkway - after the property manager called 911 at about 4:30 p.m.

The caller said Harris, a resident of the complex, was verbally threatening her husband and others. Police said Harris' 39-year-old daughter was with her at the time, though Bobby Harris said he was at home and did not know of any threats against him. Police had said Harris was "acting erratically."

"They were called to this scene because the woman was acting in a threatening, menacing manner," McMahon said.

The chief said the officers called the mobile crisis team, which consists of mental health professionals trained to assist with such situations. But before the team arrived, Harris went into a bedroom in the apartment, got the knife and started moving toward Mehrer.

The officer is in his 11th week of field training after graduating from the police academy in February. New officers ride with veteran officers for 14 weeks or more after graduation as part of their training, McMahon said.

Baxter, who has been with the department since 2001, ordered Harris to drop the knife, but she lunged at Mehrer, police said. Baxter then fired his gun once, and the bullet hit Harris in the hip.

"When my daughter called, she was crying and said they shot her," Bobby Harris said.

When using lethal force, officers are trained to aim for "center mass," McMahon said.

Harris was flown by helicopter to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where she was listed in fair condition yesterday. Harris will be taken to a psychiatric facility for evaluation, McMahon said, and will not face any criminal charges until mental health treatment is complete.

The two officers have been placed on administrative leave, which is department policy in the case of such shootings.

McMahon said officers "have a lot of less lethal options" but that "the dynamics of this situation didn't allow" alternatives. The officers did not know that Harris had a knife until they entered the apartment, the chief said.

Though some officers in the department carry Tasers, neither of the two in Wednesday's incident carried the device, McMahon said.

Police described Harris as a "mental subject," and her husband acknowledged that she has mental health problems. Pearl Harris moved out of the couple's Columbia home and into Park View about a month ago because she feared that her family would institutionalize her, Bobby Harris said.

"She had regressed really to the point of hallucination and stuff like that, but ... that shouldn't have been a factor at all," he said. "You tell me, does that warrant a cop shooting a 62-year-old woman? Their life is that much in danger?"

Wednesday's incident was the second police-involved shooting in the county in less than a month. On April 8 in a Jessup neighborhood, an undercover officer fired his gun by accident while stepping out of his car, and a single bullet struck two teenage boys. That shooting is under investigation by the internal affairs division.

McMahon characterized the shootings as "two completely different sets of circumstances," and emphasized that the April shooting was an accident, while Wednesday's incident was appropriate because of the perceived threat to the officers.

Before this year, the most recent police-involved shooting in Howard County occurred in early 2005, said Sherry Llewellyn, police spokeswoman.


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