Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Friday that officers on patrol watched Matthew V. Wood Jr., 43, and his son, Kimani Johnson, 18, pull up on East Lanvale Street near Green Mount Cemetery about 4 p.m., emerging from a vehicle holding weapons.
Officials said police believed the men were poised to shoot a group of people across the street.
“If not for the Baltimore Police Department yesterday, we could have had a mass shooting on our hands, where several innocent lives could have easily been taken,” Davis said at a news conference at police headquarters.
Neither Wood nor Johnson fired, Davis said, but he commended the officers for stopping the men from shooting. At the news conference, police displayed the large pink rifle they say Wood was carrying.
“We don’t run from bad guys with guns. We engage them,” Davis said. “We fired 56 rounds yesterday until this threat was eliminated.”
Two law enforcement sources said investigators believe Wood and Johnson were affiliated with the Black Guerrilla Family gang, which is believed to be fueling much of the violence in some city neighborhoods.
A convicted member of the gang was fatally shot Wednesday night in the Barclay neighborhood, a few blocks north of Thursday’s shooting in Greenmount West.
The gunfire by police happened steps away from a playground as residents were returning home from work to the neighborhood, the site of several redevelopment projects.
More than 150 people have been shot in the city this year, with homicides up 11 percent compared to the same period last year and nonfatal shootings up 49 percent. Last year saw the highest per-capita homicide total in the city’s history, started by a surge in violence following the death of Freddie Gray in April.
Johnson was free on $100,000 bail awaiting trial for a handgun charge, court records show. Wood was on probation after receiving a sentence of time served — about three months — in October for a gun charge.
The charge Wood pleaded guilty to should have brought a mandatory sentence of five years in prison without parole, but Judge Alfred Nance said prosecutors agreed to “step off” that requirement, according to a tape of Wood’s plea hearing.
Police identified the officers as Norman Jones, who has been on the force for two years, and Sgt. Joseph Wiczulis, an eight-year veteran. Wiczulis has been involved in two previous fatal shootings since 2010, including one incident in which he shot a man who had shot two officers.
Jones and Wiczulis, and a third officer who did not fire, are on routine administrative leave. The state’s attorney’s office declined to comment on its investigation of the case.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a mayoral candidate, said Friday she was still receiving information about the circumstances of Thursday’s shooting by police but that it all points to the need to get illegal guns off the street. Pugh said she also is concerned about the safety of officers fighting against criminals with high-powered weapons.
“When police officers walk out of their homes, they don’t know if they’ll be back,” Pugh said. “We need to create an environment for them and the public to be safe.”
Another candidate, Councilman Carl Stokes, said the police made a judgment call that he did not want to second-guess. He praised police for putting more officers in the community in plainclothes to try to prevent crime. “In this case, that strategy worked,” Stokes said.
Lawyer Elizabeth Embry said she wanted more information, adding, “The truth is we don’t know yet what the intentions of the father and son were, but certainly the fact that they were carrying loaded weapons in broad daylight is an indication they were not there for a good reason.”
Davis said the officers were dressed in civilian clothes with vests that identified them as police officers. They are assigned to the special operations section in the Eastern District. None was injured in the shooting.
The commissioner said the officers happened to be riding by when they came upon the two armed men. He said the team had been patrolling the area in an unmarked car as part of a broader crime-fighting effort in the community, which has experienced increased violence recently.
“They rode by this car. You can just imagine, they’re driving by this Volvo that just parked on the side of the road, and out pops two armed gunmen. One with a long gun, one’s got a pistol,” Davis said. “It’s not something that should happen anywhere.”
It’s unclear how many people the men were targeting, but Davis said Wood and Johnson were moving toward a group of people across the street. The rifle was loaded to capacity with 25 rounds and the handgun had seven rounds, police said.
Before the officers opened fire, Davis said, Wood and Johnson said “something threatening” to the group across the street, witnesses told police.
Anthony Barksdale, who spent six years as deputy commissioner of the Police Department until retiring in 2013, said the situation emphasized the importance of training for officers.
“If that guy could’ve let off with that rifle, all three of those cops would’ve been dead,” Barksdale said. “That pink rifle might look silly, but it is highly lethal. You’re goddamn right they fired 56 shots.”
A woman reached by phone who identified herself Friday morning as Johnson’s mother declined to comment on the shooting but called Johnson “my son, the first true love of my life.”
She said he would have turned 19 Monday.
Court records show Johnson’s mother petitioned for child support from Wood in 2010, with Wood taking a DNA test 13 years after Johnson was born that proved he was the child’s father.
Court records from another paternity case involving Wood show he had worked for a moving company, as a chef and as a traffic control employee for the city. In 2007 he was enrolled in intensive outpatient treatment for a drug addiction, and in more recent years was part an employment program with the Center for Urban Families.
Wood’s gun arrest in October came after police said they observed him dealing drugs outside his home, then executed a search warrant and found a 9mm handgun inside. It was his second gun conviction — in 1996, he pleaded guilty and received probation on a handgun charge.
Chief Rodney Hill, head of the Police Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, said the Special Investigations Response Team, which investigates police-involved shootings, responded to the scene and is continuing to locate additional witnesses.
He said “a number of civilian witnesses” corroborated statements from the witness officer.
Davis said there have been a number of recent crime scenes where many rounds of ammunition have been recovered.
Gun arrests are up over 50 percent from last year, he said. “We are encountering more and more people who choose firearms on the streets,” he said.
Davis said he called all three officers personally to check on them. “[I] just told them I was proud of them.”