Stroke kills Balto. Co. SWAT unit commander

August 13, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

A veteran Baltimore County police officer and the longtime commander of the department's tactical unit died Monday of a stroke he suffered a day earlier after leading the investigation into a murder-suicide in Randallstown.

Lt. Michael Howe spent Sunday morning at the home of a man who called police to say he had killed his wife and was about to shoot himself. There, the 55-year-old commander ordered his officers to enter the house of an armed man, just as he had done hundreds of times before. Officers found two bodies in the basement.

Hours later, Lieutenant Howe collapsed at his Carroll County home. He died Monday afternoon at Johns Hopkins Hospital of an apparent massive stroke, police said yesterday.

"He was a shining example of the best in American policing," said Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson. "It is a significant loss for this agency."

A 30-year veteran of the force, Lieutenant Howe had commanded the tactical unit since 1998 and led the police dog squad for six years before that.

He was described as a spiritual man with a quick wit, a big heart and an ability to focus intensely on a job that required him to make split-second decisions that routinely put people's lives in danger. He was as comfortable talking to the police chief as he was to a new cadet or a crossing guard, colleagues said, and treated those in his unit like family.

"This man was with us every single time and made the decision to send his friends, his sons, his team in to protect the citizens of this county," said Cpl. David T. Garner, who worked with Lieutenant. Howe on the police dog unit before joining the SWAT team last year. "And he was very good at it. He never wavered in his role as our commander. But he never wavered in his role as our friend either."

Lieutenant Howe played a pivotal role on the team that negotiated for four days with Joseph C. Palczynski, the unemployed electrician who killed four people in 2000 before taking three hostages at gunpoint. The siege in a Dundalk apartment ended after the hostages escaped unhurt and police stormed the house and killed Palczynski.

Dr. James McGee, then the director of law enforcement and forensic services at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, worked beside Lieutenant Howe for 97 hours, with few breaks, during the standoff.

"We all knew the Palczynski story was going to end badly based on what had already happened," he said. "One of the memories that stays with me is that [Lieutenant Howe]was a fellow who, prior to beginning an investigation, would say a small prayer."

Corporal Garner, who as a canine officer was shot in December 2006 during a search for an armed robbery suspect, credits Lieutenant Howe with saving his life the day he was hurt. At one point, the lieutenant ordered the canine officers tracking the suspect to wait for the SWAT team to join them.

Later, Corporal Garner was shot and "I was unable to return fire," he said. "It was the SWAT guy next to me who was able to return fire and save my life."

David Rose, the second vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, was at Johns Hopkins on Monday afternoon with four dozen tactical and canine officers and their family members when doctors announced that the lieutenant had died.

"You're in there with some of the toughest, well-trained guys in the agency and there's not a dry eye in the place," he said.

Because Lieutenant Howe's death occurred so soon after his work on the Randallstown case, it is considered in the line of duty, Chief Johnson said.

As such, Lieutenant Howe will be buried with full departmental honors. He is the eighth Baltimore County officer to die in the line of duty in the department's history.

A viewing is scheduled from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at the Ruck Funeral Home, 1050 York Road, Towson. His funeral will be held at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church, 2930 Hanover Pike, Manchester. Interment will follow at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

He is survived by his wife, Debra, and stepson, Jason Simons, who is a detective in the Towson precinct.

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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