Body camera video captured a scene rarely made public: a Baltimore SWAT supervisor ordering an officer to kill a man holding two children hostage with a knife. While the video is jarring, the footage offers an unusual window into how officers make a difficult decision to use lethal force.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis showed the graphic footage of the recent standoff at a Baltimore rowhome to reporters Tuesday, the latest of three officer shootings recorded by body cameras since the city rolled them out last year. About 900 officers now wear the cameras daily.
The video captures a SWAT team sergeant outside the house where authorities had been unsuccessfully pleading for nearly an hour Friday for 39-year-old Reno Owens to release the 1-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl he was holding. The sergeant said the man, also clutching a 12-inch butcher knife, could kill the children at any time, and that nonlethal force wasn’t an option.
“I want you to be calm,” the sergeant tells SWAT Officer Zachary Wein. “I want you to be relaxed, and I want you to walk in there and kill this guy.”
Moments later, video shows Wein walking up the steps, exchanging a few words with Owens, who still refuses to cooperate, and then firing a single fatal shot. During the exchange, Owens can be heard saying, “I’d rather go out this way.”
Davis praised the officers for their “courage, bravery and grace under pressure,” and stressed such commands from SWAT supervisors are not uncommon in hostage cases involving “a deadly threat.” But seldom are such exchanges captured on camera.
More such dramatic videos are expected to become available in cities nationwide where body cameras are being deployed by police agencies, pressed for greater transparency in dealings with the public after protests in recent years over the deaths of black men and others at the hands of law enforcement.
Civil unrest erupted across Baltimore in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man whose neck was broken in the back of a police transport van. Last year the department began deploying body cameras, and earlier this year entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice over its history of excessive force, unlawful stops and discriminatory practices.
Davis said he decided not to publicly distribute footage of Friday’s standoff to protect the children from being re-traumatized later.
“As they go through their childhood, adolescence and rest of their lives, we didn’t want to create a video footprint they would be exposed to,” he said at a news conference.
Police said Owens had spent the night at his female cousin’s house, awoke early Friday, went to her children’s room and took them hostage. Footage shows the woman meeting officers outside the home and telling them that Owens charged at her with a knife in his hand.
Owens’ mother, Doreen Parker, said she was shocked when she heard the news. Owens lived with her, she said, and while he sometimes struggled with depression, “he loves kids; he would never hurt anybody.”
The footage shows officers in a bedroom doorway pleading with Owens, who is heard screaming and cursing at them in bouts. He also is heard threatening the children and also laughing, reciting prayers and at one point singing “Rock-a-bye Baby.” One officer repeatedly tells Owens they want to help him and asks him to drop the knife. Owens doesn’t cooperate.
Outside after the sergeant gives a command to shoot, a lieutenant asks whether there was a less lethal option. The sergeant said ‘no.’
Davis said hostage negotiators had been called, but didn’t make it in time. Police have not yet determined whether Owens was on drugs at the time.
The actual shot that killed Owens wasn’t shown, but authorities said regardless of what Owens was doing at that moment he was a deadly threat the entire time.
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