Temple Hills, Md. --- A man armed with a gun struggles with police outside a popular Prince George’s County nightclub, gets shot, barricades himself in the bar and takes a woman hostage. During the next 25 minutes, 15 police officers discharge their guns, firing nearly 90 shots.
When the gunman decides to come walking out, police open fire and he drops to the ground almost immediately, mortally wounded. Police continue to fire gunshots across the storefront for 10 seconds, striking glass doors, windows and cars parked in front of the building.
The Holiday Liquors shootout and standoff on March 17, 2009 will probably go down as the largest shootout in the history of the Prince George’s County Police Department.
“This situation would be considered an ‘active shooter’ and a ‘hostage incident’ which are two of the most dangerous and confusing law enforcement scenarios,” says Randy Sutton, a nationally recognized policing expert who has authored three related books and appeared on COPS, America’s Most Wanted and Las Vegas.
This incident also highlights the potential dangers as to what is often known as contagious fire or sympathetic fire. That is when officers fire their guns simply because other officers have already fired.
The challenges and logistics police and 9-1-1 operators/dispatchers face when confronted with such a crisis is enormous. The recordings that have been provided by the county show a rare glimpse into the complexities of such a chaotic situation. A vast amount of information, some of it inaccurate, must be processed by the emergency workers and quickly shared. Competent callers, 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers can make the difference between success and tragedy.
“Dispatch did an excellent job,” Sutton notes, but adds that “There really was no one clearly in charge of the incident at the scene, hence much of the confusion and needless radio traffic which added to the confusion.” At one point, amidst the chaos, an officer is even heard radioing the dispatcher that he had been “hit by the [red light] camera” on Southern Avenue.
It has taken four years to further this story beyond the police news releases and limited news reports. The county does not release the investigative reports which are compiled by the department’s Special Investigations Response Team (SIRT) for each police-involved shooting, nor is the county required to do so under the state’s open records statues.
After repeated attempts using the Maryland Public Information Act, the county has provided examiner.com with this video from a police car dash-mounted camera and audio recordings from the police radio and these 9-1-1 calls that were compiled for the SIRT investigation. The county also eventually allowed the medical examiner to release the gunman’s autopsy report.
It has been a challenge to reconstruct this incident with what was provided. According to the police department, none of the half-dozen officers who had dash-mounted cameras in their vehicles that morning had the microphones activated. Furthermore, the time stamp on the video provided by the county is off by about an hour.
The radio transmissions were recorded in real-time, by the county’s Public Safety Communications, but do not exactly synchronize with the video which was also recorded in real time. Since the video had no sound track, we have attempted to match the radio transmissions to the video as best as possible.
When police were called to investigate reports of a man with a gun on that Tuesday morning at Holiday Liquors, the situation quickly escalates. The first 9-1-1 call for help came at 12:03 a.m. from an employee reporting that a man with a gun was in the bar.
The man, eventually identified as 26-year-old Nicholas Howard, known to the customers as “Bear,” had accidentally dropped his gun while in the bar, and put it back in his pocket. Howard appeared to be attempting to conceal the gun as he exited the bar, the first caller told the 9-1-1 operator.
The 9-1-1 recordings released by the county include more than 50 minutes of conversations between persons inside the bar and emergency operators.
“We have an urgent emergency. Do not put me on hold!” states Robert Moss, one of the callers to 9-1-1 that morning. Moss, who tells the operator that he is an off-duty unarmed security guard, provides the best insight as to what is happening inside the business. “[We have a] hostage situation,” Moss states, “I am trapped in the bar. I’m trying to get out. We have police here. We have a guy in here in the bar with me shooting and he has a gun. I am trying to get them out of here without getting shot.”
Moss tells the 9-1-1 operator that Howard has been drinking and is holding a woman hostage. He yells at the suspect, “Bear! Put the gun down, man! Put the gun down! Come on man, put the f***ing gun down….” Moss reiterates.
“See,” he tells the 9-1-1 operator, “he’s waiving his f***ing gun and I’m not trying to get f***ing shot.”
During his call for help, Moss notes that Howard had already been shot in the scuffle with police and was bleeding. “Come on, man, let her go, man,” Moss is heard telling Howard repeatedly while on the phone with 9-1-1.
“Yo Bear, put it down, man. Put it down, man. I’ll walk out with you. Put it down. Put it DOWN!” Moss urges Howard. But it is as if it does not even register with Howard. Customers in the background can be heard pleading with him to free the woman and drop his gun. But Howard continues to drag her around the bar at gunpoint.
Finally, Howard, after suffering extensive blood loss from gunshot wounds, frees the woman and heads for the front door still holding his gun.
The dash-cam video shows Howard exiting the bar. Within a second, police open fire and Howard falls to the ground. The video also shows gunshots continue for more than 10 seconds.
Inside the bar, the first in a series of shots is heard as Moss tells the 9-1-1 operator that Howard is coming out the door. The first shot is heard. Women scream and one cries out “Oh my God.” “You are killing him,” Moss tells the operator, “You all just killed him! Tell them to stop shooting!” he adds.
One can sense concern as an officer radios for a ceasefire as gunshots continue for about 10 seconds after Howard hits the ground.
Within two minutes, three police officers cautiously approach Howard’s lifeless body. Without bending down, one of them, using his foot, appears to slide Howard’s gun about 15 feet back along the wall. An officer picks up the gun and the police retreat.
The bar is eventually evacuated, one by one, and swept by police. The investigation takes hours as evidence techs attempt to account for the shots fired. Investigators eventually determine that two sheriff deputies also had fired their guns, but they did not report it, bringing the total number of officers who fired to 15.
The medical examiner later determines that Howard had been consuming cocaine and alcohol. The autopsy report concludes that he “died of multiple firearm injuries to include twenty-seven shotgun pellet wounds, two gunshot wounds and seven firearm injury wounds (non-specific).”
“Scenes like this are very dynamic and with the suspect already having fired on officers,” Sutton states, “shooting him when he emerged was perfectly justified.”
As for the number of shots fired and by whom, Sutton says “each officer who made the decision to fire should have seen the threat and reacted to it… but simply discharging your weapon because another officer did so is not appropriate.” The number of rounds fired is not necessarily a problem, he adds, as an officer can discharge an entire magazine in just a few seconds.
Sutton says there could be a couple reasons police continued to fire after Howard had fallen to the ground. One could be that in the heat of the moment, officers had reaction time that was distorted because of the “adrenalin dump” that occurs in a critical incident or it could be that they still perceived the threat as still being active. “Simply because he went down on the ground does not mean that he was not still a threat,” Sutton adds.
There is an issue with "back drop," Sutton notes. He says police knew that “innocents were in the bar and the glass offered them no protection. Command and control of a situation like this is imperative to avoid cross fires and possible harm to innocents. It didn't sound like there really was any [command and control],” he observes.
As for kicking the gun away, Sutton says he sees no problem with that since the officers were unsure if there were other threats in the store and backing away was also appropriate as they had no cover in front of the window. “All in all,” Sutton states, “shooting the guy was perfectly justified and how many shots hit him is really inconsequential.”
The Prince George’s County police department has “conducted extensive training since 2009 regarding potential contagious fire scenarios and the necessity to establish command and control of a critical incident scene,” says Lt. William Alexander, police department spokesman. “Our police-involved shootings, in fact, average 11 per year since this incident; below the 15 per year average since 2005,” he adds.