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US police officer cleared in killing of unarmed, suicidal man

By Tom Jackman Time of article published Mar 3, 2020

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Maryland - A Baltimore County police officer who shot and killed an unarmed motorist in November was quickly cleared by prosecutors and returned to duty three weeks later, Baltimore County police disclosed last week, much to the surprise of the dead man's mother, who had called 911 seeking help for her son.

The mother told police that her son, Eric Sopp, 48, was drunk and suicidal. When two officers pulled Sopp over on Interstate 83, at least one immediately drew his gun and both shouted commands at him, a video released Thursday shows. A top policing expert who is attempting to reduce "suicide by cop" nationwide said the incident showed that some police departments haven't provided proper training on how to handle a person in mental crisis.

On November 26, after an apparent day of drinking, Sopp smashed items in his house and put an ice pick to his throat before dropping it, his mother, Catherine Sopp, told police. When Eric Sopp obtained his car keys from his mother and left their house in Parkton, Maryland, just west of Interstate 83, Catherine Sopp called 911. Her entire call was released Thursday along with an edited body-camera video of the moments leading up to the shooting.

"I want to report that my son just left the house, and he's out there driving drunk," Catherine Sopp told the call-taker. "And I'm afraid, and he threatened to commit suicide." The mother said that her son had put an ice pick to his neck, but it was now "in the drawer . . . He plans on either drinking himself to death or going out and getting some drugs and taking himself off that way."

The call-taker asked, "Does anyone need medical attention?"

"He does," Catherine Sopp said of her son.

Minutes later, Baltimore County officers saw Sopp's car headed south on I-83. One of the officers, whose last name is Page — county police agreed with the police union not to release officer's first name — approached Sopp and signaled for him to pull over. Sopp did so, quickly. Page approached the car from the right side and had his gun drawn. Another officer also approached the car and also can be heard shouting commands at Sopp. Police did not release the name of this officer or disclose whether his gun was drawn because of an ongoing internal investigation.

The encounter lasted about a minute. Page repeatedly told Sopp to show his hands and put his hands on the dash and the vehicle in park. In the video the officer can be heard telling the dispatcher that Sopp put his car in park. The video also shows that Sopp did not turn the car off. It cannot be seen in the video where he placed his hands. Then, Sopp is heard saying, "I'm going out."

Both officers yelled, "Don't get out of the car!" As Sopp emerged from the car, the video shows Page firing eight shots, four as Sopp is turned away and falling. The other officer is not shown firing any shots. Sopp did not have a weapon on him. Police would not say whether there was a weapon in the car. Sopp was pronounced dead at the scene. Both Sopp and Page are white.

Police would not say why Page approached the car with his gun drawn. "That is part of the internal investigation," said Sgt. Vickie Warehime, the Baltimore County police spokeswoman. "That is one of the aspects they will look at." She noted that dispatchers had mentioned an ice pick, and when Page asked for more detail he was told, "no indication he actually took it with him," rather than his mother's statement that he did not have the ice pick.

The Baltimore County homicide unit investigated the shooting and turned its findings over to State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger. On December 16, three weeks after the shooting, Deputy State's Attorney Robin Coffin issued a ruling that the "shooting of Eric Sopp was tragic, but justified under these circumstances." She said that Sopp's "erratic behavior, his charge out of the car and knowing that the suspect was suicidal placed Officer Page in a highly dangerous situation."

Shellenberger declined to comment about the video Friday. He said his office moved quickly on its ruling because "we take these cases very seriously. We think that the police officer, the unfortunate family of the victim and the public have a right to a quick response of our legal analysis." Most prosecutors' rulings on police shootings take much longer. The November 2017 slaying of unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar by two U.S. Park Police officers in Virginia was not ruled on by federal authorities for two years.

Page, a 21-year veteran, was authorized to return to duty the day after the ruling, December 17, Warehime said. He is assigned to the Cockeysville precinct and had no prior shooting incidents, the police said. The police did not announce in December that the shooting was ruled justifiable because that is not their normal practice, Warehime said. She said the video was released Thursday in response to media requests for it, and because the department had just issued its policy on releasing body-camera video, which is within 30 days of an incident.

Baltimore County police did not begin their internal investigation until after the prosecutor made a decision on whether to file charges. Warehime said that investigation is continuing.

Catherine Sopp has hired attorneys who are investigating the case, and who disputed the prosecutors' findings. "Eric Sopp was unarmed, suicidal, and in need of help," said Chelsea Crawford, one of the lawyers. "Mr. Sopp was not driving erratically before he was pulled over; he promptly pulled to the side of the road when Officer Page turned on his flashing lights; obeyed the officer's command to put his car in park; and announced that he was getting out of his car before he opened the door. Yet, the officer had his gun drawn and finger on the trigger the moment he got out of his squad car."

Coffin's letter clearing the officer said that Page's body camera footage showed Sopp's car "weaving in the lanes," which is not shown in the video released by the police. Warehime said there was more footage from Page's camera that was not released. Coffin said, "Sopp refuses all commands; to place the car in park, to place his hand on the dash and to stay in the car."

Crawford said the video released by police "contradicts many of the findings of the State's Attorney's Office, which issued a quick, misleading, and erroneous letter exonerating the officer last fall. Police officers should protect and serve, not escalate and execute."

Last fall, the Police Executive Research Forum released a new program to reduce episodes of "suicide by cop," estimating that of 1,000 annual fatal police shootings, about 100 are of people seeking to be killed by an officer. The program calls on officers to be trained not to aim weapons at people in mental crisis, to communicate without shouting, and to maintain a safe distance from the subject.

"This was a crisis situation," said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of PERF, after watching the video, "and police officers really aren't trained to deal with a crisis situation . . . This officer was doing as he was trained to do. Most officers in this country are not trained to deal with a potential suicide by cop situation. This is what you had. And unfortunately, the results are tragic."

Catherine Sopp said in a statement, "I never imagined that when I called 911 to protect my son and others from him driving drunk, it would cost him his life. There was no reason for the officer to shoot and kill him."

The Washington Post

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