BALTIMORE (AP) — A teenager critically wounded by Baltimore police Thursday afternoon was shot in the back while running from officers, according to an eyewitness account that raised more questions about whether the shooting was justified.
Baltimore police said the shooting followed a short foot pursuit that began because an officer thought the teen was armed and approached him. The teen ran away, ignoring commands to drop his gun, according to police.
Officials are considering whether to release body-camera footage of the shooting, which has prompted heated criticism of the Baltimore’s embattled police department.
Other police shootings in cities nationwide have raised similar issues in recent years, with prosecutors, courts and the public considering when an officer should use whatever means necessary to stop a fleeing suspect.
Baltimore police said the 17-year-old was carrying a gun with an extended magazine, but they declined to provide many other details about the shooting, including whether he was shot in the back.
But witness Pat Felder, 36, said he was sitting on his father’s front stoop Thursday afternoon, eating a sandwich and enjoying the spring weather — when suddenly a young man came running around the corner of a nearby intersection, followed by a police officer. He said the officer was yelling at the teen to “get on the ground.”
Moments later, Felder said, he watched as the officer drew his gun and fired four shots. The young man collapsed.
“He was definitely shot in the back,” Felder said in an interview Friday morning outside his father’s house in majority-Black southwest Baltimore. “He was facing away from the officer, running like he was scared.”
Felder said the officer, whom he described as Black, seemed visibly agitated after the shooting. A crowd quickly formed around the injured teen, yelling at police and demanding to know whether the shooting was necessary.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone get shot,” Felder said. “I was ready to start crying.”
Baltimore police said the teen ignored “numerous” orders after “displaying characteristics of an armed person.” But officials declined to say whether he ever pointed a weapon at police.
Department policy says officers are allowed to use deadly force when they believe it’s “immediately necessary” to protect another officer or civilian from “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury.” In the case of a fleeing suspect, officers can use deadly force to prevent the person from escaping under certain circumstances.
The policy largely aligns with a 1985 Supreme Court decision that said shooting a fleeing suspect who’s not an imminent threat violates the person’s constitutional rights. The court said that an officer’s threat assessment in a specific situation should be evaluated as a split-second decision, without the benefit of hindsight.
The teenage gunshot victim was a familiar presence in his neighborhood, where residents have long complained about over-policing and discriminatory treatment from law enforcement — a familiar criticism in a city still reeling from its history of troubled policing practices, despite recent reform efforts.
A friend of the teen, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his safety, said he recognized the officer involved because he and his partner have been coming through the neighborhood often in recent months. He said the officers would make derogatory jokes and antagonize residents.
The officers are members of a so-called District Action Team, one of the Baltimore Police Department’s specialized units that focuses on proactive patrols and other measures in areas of Baltimore most plagued by violence.
Only one of the officers fired his weapon, according to police. In the minutes preceding the foot pursuit, that officer was sitting on a stoop next to the teen.
Video posted to social media and viewed by The Associated Press shows them sitting side by side while another person yells insults at the officer, who says he’s there to interact with community members, not bothering anyone.
The video stops before the chase. But according to the friend, the teen got up and started walking away, then took off running when the officer tried to grab him.
Other neighborhood residents said the shooting was just the latest example of Baltimore police treating Black communities poorly, making them doubt whether ongoing reform measures are having any real impact.
The department started seriously pursuing reform after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found longstanding patterns of excessive force, unlawful arrests and discriminatory policing. Those findings led to a 2017 consent decree, which mandated a series of changes to eliminate unconstitutional policing practices and improve community trust.
The DOJ investigation was launched after Freddie Gray’s 2015 death from spinal injuries in Baltimore police custody. Not long after the consent decree was announced, the Gun Trace Task Force scandal also revealed extensive abuse and corruption inside an elite plainclothes unit — revelations that further ruptured public trust.