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By Luke Lavoie

A homeless man convicted of attempted murder for shooting a Howard County police officer in broad daylight was sentenced to 56 years in prison Friday.

Stephon Prather, 30, of no fixed address, was sentenced in connection with the Oct. 23, 2013, shootout with three county police officers that occurred in the middle of Route 1 in North Laurel. In July, a Howard County jury convicted Prather of three counts of second-degree attempted murder and other charges stemming from the incident that hospitalized officer Steven Houk, a then two-year veteran of the force, with a gunshot wound and resulted in a 17-hour police manhunt for Prather, who was also shot twice in the melee.

At the hearing in Howard County Circuit Court Friday, prosecutors argued for a sentence of 65 years, citing the brazen circumstances of the shootout, according to County State’s Attorney spokesman Wayne Kirwan.

Prather’s defense attorney, who was almost dismissed by Prather during the trial, argued that he is not “a dangerous person in some circumstances,” and asked for a lighter sentence. Prather, who did not testify during his trial, did not speak during the proceeding, Kirwan said.

Judge Richard Bernhardt said Prather created “a Dodge City situation on Route 1,” and added that his decision to live life by his own rules is “contrary to society.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun

As Baltimore Police Department officials prepare for a Department of Justice probe into allegations of brutality, leaders of the local police union criticized the outside scrutiny and said it could make city streets less safe.

A host of reforms, along with a strategic plan unveiled last year, shows the department is serious about improving its relationship with the community, Fraternal Order of Police President Robert Cherry said Monday. The new federal scrutinty could make city officers fearful of being second-guessed and lead to ineffective policing, he added.

“We don’t need the federal government to tell us how to police Baltimore,” Cherry said. “We all need to do this together. I’m confident in our department.”

In an hourlong interview, Cherry and FOP Vice President Gene Ryan criticized the decision by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts to ask the Department of Justice to help reform the police force.

While the mayor and Batts said Friday that they discussed the move weeks ago, the announcement came just days after The Baltimore Sun published results of a six-month investigation showing that residents have suffered battered faces and broken bones during arrests.

The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 cases since 2011, The Sun found, and nearly all of the people in the arrests leading to those lawsuits had their criminal charges dismissed.

Batts said Friday that he asked the Department of Justice to launch an investigation, and that the ball is “rolling” toward it. Officials in Washington have not returned calls seeking comment.

Ryan said the lack of support for officers from city leaders has a negative effect on policing the streets.

“It’s already happening,” he said about officers shying away from doing their job. “Why should they get out of the cars?”

While the union condemns what it calls the few “rogue cops” in the ranks, most of the city’s 2,800 officers are being criticized unfairly by the news media, Batts and the mayor, Cherry said. He noted that reforms triggered by the federal oversight could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not more — in a city already strapped for cash.

He also believes that public pressure resulting from The Sun’s investigation pushed Batts and Rawlings-Blake to seek federal oversight.

Cherry said The Sun investigation didn’t do enough to distinguish between brutality and the legitimate use of force, which sometimes is needed to subdue a combative suspect. He pointed to videos that surfaced in recent weeks.

One showed an officer beating a man on North Avenue in June; police leaders condemned the act and suspended the officer once they learned of it. Another video showed officers using batons and Tasers to arrest an unruly suspect outside a nightclub; those officers are working while the case is being reviewed.

He further questioned how any elected leaders can say they didn’t know about the scope of the brutality allegations, given the number of payouts. Cherry said city leaders could have better reacted to the article by showing how many lawsuits were deemed frivolous.

The city, however, doesn’t track the lawsuits, The Sun investigation found.

Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman, Kevin Harris, said Monday that seeking federal help is another way to make Baltimore a safer city. Other cities have seen “significant, positive reforms” after federal probes, he said, adding, “It makes community policing much better.”

He pointed out that the administration included many of the points from the union’s 2012 “blueprint for improved policing” in the department’s strategic plan.

Harris also noted one place the city could find funds to help pay for any reforms: the millions it is spending on settlements, court judgments and legal fees for all the lawsuits against police.

“Look at how much it has cost us so far,” Harris said. Seeking a federal probe, he said, “is a bold step for change.”

Some cities have paid $1 million or more a year to comply with Department of Justice recommendations following similar probes, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.

Amid a host of reforms started by Batts, including a team created to investigate use-of-force incidents, the agency is implementing recommendations from a strategic plan drafted by outside consultants in November 2013.

Cherry and Ryan said the rank and file has offered suggestions to improve the agency and pointed to the 2012 blueprint. The union conducted a study and issued its findings in a 15-page report.

The report called on leaders to make “education level a priority” in hiring, mirroring cities such as New York, where new officers need either military experience or two years of college. In addition to urging improved background checks on new hires, the union would like the Maryland Police Training Commission to audit recruitment and hiring standards. Other suggestions include improving front-line supervision on the streets.

The report was sent to Rawlings-Blake, City Council members and other top officials, Cherry said, adding: “We never heard a word from the mayor.”

Meanwhile, an email disseminated last weekend by the union’s vice president-elect encouraged younger officers to leave the force.

Lt. Victor Gearthart, who has 33 years experience in the department and is one of its longest-tenured members, said he has never recommended that officers leave — until now.

In his email to colleagues, he argued that federal oversight would upend the officers’ fight against crime.

“The amount of paperwork you will have to fill out is mind numbing. Crime-fighting will have to take a second seat to filling out reports on the reports that you filled out,” he said. “Reform means more criminals will have more time to prey on the public while you are stuck inside filling out reports for the feds.

“Any officer with less [than] 10 years on [the force] is a fool if they are not looking for a better police force to jump to. Youngsters, vote with your feet!”

In an interview, Gearhart said current problems within the department are overstated. “The number of uses of force compared to the number of citizen contacts we make is probably quite small. Calling in the feds is just so over the top. I think it’s going to bring more problems.”

Of his warning to younger officers, he said: “I don’t see why a person would come to Baltimore City to serve as police. I don’t see it.”

Cherry and Ryan disagreed, saying a mass exodus from the police force would hurt the city.

“‘We’re not encouraging it,” Ryan said. “I’m proud to be a Baltimore City police officer.”

mpuente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MarkPuente

By Luke Lavoie, llavoie@tribune.com4:45 p.m. EDT, September 4, 2014

Lt. Bob Wagner is the Commander of Education and Training Division for the Howard County Police Department. Wagner discusses how the county’s police force is trained to handle encounters with individuals who may have mental health issues. Wagner also discusses how officers determine when to fire their weapons.

In two separate incidents last month, police officers shot two people in domestic settings after they threatened the officers and others with knives. In both instances, police believe the citizens, who died as a result of the incidents, were dealing with mental health issues.

Q: Do police believe the two incidents are at all related and part of some trend, or is it being looked at as coincidence?

A: There are no indicators that these two incidents are related or part of a trend. We have not seen a dramatic increase or decrease in suicides in recent years. Publicity surrounding an event can sometimes trigger others who are thinking of the same thing to act on those thoughts, although that can’t be known for sure.

Q: In a situation where an officer is confronted with a suicidal subject, specifically one with a weapon, what are they trained to do?

A: Officers are trained in de-escalation techniques, using communication and negotiation, when a person is in crisis. They are trained to only use deadly force to stop a threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or others. They first try to eliminate the threat of violence without the use of weapons.

Patrol officers often call in specialized negotiators, tactical units and the Mobile Crisis Team, a partnership between the police and Grassroots, to respond and resolve situations.

Many patrol officers, as well as some of our dispatchers and detectives, also have crisis intervention training to teach them additional methods to de-escalate a suicidal subject or person with mental illness. Each situation is different, so there is no one way to de-escalate a situation with someone who is suicidal and has a weapon.

If officers believe a person in crisis is a threat to himself or others, they can take him into custody on an emergency petition to be transported to the hospital for evaluation.

Q: As part of their training, are officers educated on how to handle potential “suicide-by-cop” situations? If so, what are they trained to do.

A: Officers are educated on suicide-by-cop situations and how to recognize them. Sometimes it is clear, but it is often difficult to know a person’s intent. If the situation permits, trained negotiators respond. If the situation does not permit — if it is a surprise, or the subject with a weapon takes quick action to threaten the officer or someone else’s safety or life, an officer must react with appropriate force to stop the threat. Officers are trained to first seek cover, assess the threat and attempt to resolve the situation verbally with their de-escalation training. If there is no weapon, then officers are taught to be aware of their surroundings and attempt to resolve the situation verbally.

Q: When officers discharge their weapon, is it always a shoot-to-kill situation or are there other situations? If there are other situations, what are they and how does an officer determine when to exercise deadly force and when to restrain?

A: Officers are trained on a repetitive basis to use deadly force only to stop a threat. As soon as the threat is over – the person with a weapon stops coming after the officer or someone else, drops the weapon or the weapon falls from their hand – the officer de-escalates force. Officers are trained to shoot center mass because it is the largest target, and only shoot when someone is facing a threat of serious bodily injury or death. Police are not trained to shoot weapons out of hands or to shoot legs or arms. Officers only use their firearms when there is a threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or others.

Read more: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/ellicott-city/ph-ho-cf-police-mental-health-wagner0904-20140904,0,3645858.story#ixzz3CjYaqxp0

By Luke Lavoie, llavoie@tribune.com6:05 a.m. EDT, August 27, 2014

Two Ellicott City residents who Howard County police believe were suffering from mental health issues were killed last week in separate police-involved shootings – incidents that the county’s top elected official says reinforces the need for more mental health initiatives.

“We are trying to build a model public health community in Howard County. And what recent incidents illustrate – in an incredibly painful way – is the need for mental health treatment,” County Executive Ken Ulman said in an email Tuesday.

On Aug. 20, two county police officers shot Darren Friedman, 45, inside his home in the 7600 block of Coachlight Lane. Police responded to a “suicide-in-progress” and found Friedman with several self-inflicted stab wounds, police said. When they tried to intervene, they said Friedman charged at them with the knife and was shot. He was pronounced dead later that day.

On Aug. 23, two county police officers shot and killed Hernan Milton Ossorio, 61, outside of his home in the 5000 block of Montgomery Road in Ellicott City after they said he came at them with a knife. After getting a 911 call from someone inside the home, officers tried to subdue Ossorio with a Taser but were not successful. Ossorio’s family members told police he was suicidal.

Increasing awareness about mental health issues — specifically as it relates to police work — has been a focus of Ulman and the county this year. The need for more attention was emphasized after three died in a shooting at The Mall in Columbia on Jan. 25. Howard County police’s investigation revealed that the shooter, 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar, was suffering from mental health issues when he opened fire and killed Zumiez employees Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mt. Airy, and Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park, before turning the gun on himself.

“We have in the past year researched best practices, talked with stakeholders and taken a hard look at our existing services,” Ulman said.

Among the initiatives by Ulman is the hiring of a full-time mental health professional in the police department. In an interview earlier this summer, new Police Chief Gary Gardner said mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing police departments.

“Not everyone who has a mental health issue is a violent offender; I want to make that very clear. But the ones who are, or have the potential to be, we have to try and intervene as quickly as possible to prevent a tragedy like the Columbia mall,” Gardner said in the July interview.

Gardner said one of the duties of the mental health professional is to act as a case manager and assist citizens who might be suffering from mental health issues. In both shootings this week, police said the victims had no previous contact with police.

Ulman said funding has been committed to provide the department with more help.

“Our officers are highly trained, with more skills in this area than ever before, and we must make sure we are providing them with all the tools they need to handle these difficult situations,” he said.

He added: “We have funding in this year’s budget to add an additional position in our police department to work on mental health cases, as well as to add a second mobile crisis team. We will be expanding mental health first-aid training. We are adding a new position that will work with Howard County General Hospital to ensure that patients who are hospitalized have coordination of their care before they are discharged.”

In June, Ulman created a behavioral health task force that will create a comprehensive action plan aimed at bridging gaps in mental health services in the county. The task force, which is made up of health professionals and law enforcement officials, is set to meet in the coming weeks, according to county spokesman David Nitkin.

Ulman has committed $313,700 to mental health issues in the fiscal year 2015 budget.

“Mental health issues touch us all. The need is great, but so is our commitment to making progress,” he said.

Read more: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/ellicott-city/ph-ho-cf-police-mental-health-0828-20140827,0,685553.story#ixzz3Bb2SAI48

By Carrie Wells, The Baltimore Sun2:22 p.m. EDT, August 23, 2014

Howard County police shot and killed a man they said was suicidal and confronted them with a knife Saturday morning, the second such incident this week in the county.

Police said a man called 911 twice around 6:30 a.m. reporting that someone was armed with a knife and threatening to kill people inside a house in the 5000 block of Montgomery Road in Ellicott City. Police believe the man they later shot, who was not yet been publicly identified, made the calls.

Three officers who went to the scene were “confronted” by the 61-year-old man with a knife in the front yard, police said. An officer tried to use a Taser on the man, but he ran inside the house. Moments later, the man came outside the house with a knife and came toward the officers as they ordered him to drop his weapon, according to police.

Two officers shot at the man, killing him. Two “large” knives were found at the scene, according to police. A relative of the man was at home at the time but was not injured.

Family members told police the man had recently talked about suicide.

The officers who shot the man will be placed on routine administrative leave pending an internal investigation.

On Wednesday, another man in Ellicott City, Darren Friedman, 45, was shot and killed by police after officers say he had stabbed himself with a knife and then charged police. Howard County police said they have had five other police-involved shootings in the last five years, two of which were fatal.

cwells@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cwellssun

Read more: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/ellicott-city/bs-md-ho-police-involved-shooting-20140823,0,3131367.story#ixzz3BPNGNTWj

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