Body-worn camera footage from last Sunday’s fatal police shooting of a man in Poppleton shows an exchange of dozens of shots between the suspect, who police say began firing while he lay on the ground, and a pair officers who had chased him there in a police cruiser.
The suspect, Nathaniel Sassafras, was killed in the shootout.
The footage, posted below, comes from the body camera of Officer Steven Foster, who was driving the police cruiser in which he and Officer Phillip Lippe chased Sassafras. They started on W. Lexington Street and ended behind a home on Vine Street. Both officers had been out on patrol as part of a crime suppression initiative in the Poe Homes area, Acting Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said at a press conference.
Both officers can be seen hopping out of the car to find Sassafras—holding a gun, police said, referencing zoomed-in stills from the footage—laying on the ground. “We’re not sure if he had fallen or if he was just playing possum,” Tuggle said. Police said Sassafras had not been wounded yet.
Police said Sassafras fired first, shooting 10 rounds at the officers. “There was clearly an intent on the suspect’s part to kill the officer,” Tuggle asserted. Lippe and Foster responded with more than 30 shots combined.
The exchange of gunfire lasts about 20 seconds. “Lippe, you good bro?!” Foster asks, running up to his colleague who’s still wielding a pistol in his right hand, pointed at Sassafras.
“I’m good, I’m good!” Lippe replies, pushing him away. “Keep cover!”
Foster continues trying to pull his partner toward the car, assuring him Sassafras is down. “He’s moving! He’s moving!” Lippe insists, telling Foster again to keep covering him.
Sassafras lays still on the concrete. A voice, possibly Lippe’s, can then be heard telling bystanders: “Do not move! Do not f—ing move!”
Afterward, Foster tries to calm his partner down to assess his injuries. An energized Lippe peels back his protective body armor to find where he was hit.
Chief spokesman T.J. Smith remarked today, after showing the video: “Lippe’s adrenaline was going. He didn’t stop. He kept going, trying to make sure nobody else entered the scene.”
Lippe was ultimately hit three times—once in the elbow and twice in the upper body. One of those shots hit him in his bulletproof vest, and the other on his body camera, which was damaged to the point that footage couldn’t be retrieved by its maker, Axon. He was treated at University of Maryland Shock Trauma and released that same night, police said last week.
Tuggle said today that both officers started chasing Sassafras after trying to stop him, believing they saw him selling drugs in a known area for trafficking. He fled on foot, police said.
Baltimore’s top cop complimented their work, including how they handled the crowd that began gathering after the shootout ended.
“The officers did their commendable job. They tried to commit, they tried to confine the scene by telling people to move back while at the same time trying to assess the injuries to Officer Lippe.”
Smith pointed out that getting shot while wearing protective body armor, while not as grave as direct contact, still hurts. “He’s got bruising. And there’s still a significant injury and a traumatic injury that we can’t underscore. You’re not coming back to work right after this happens.”
Both officers are now on administrative leave, and will receive physical and mental health and wellness checks before returning to active duty.
The gun Sassafras was firing had an “obliterated” serial number, and was equipped with laser sights, Smith noted. It’s unknown how many times Sassafras was shot by officers, he said.
Court records show the 29-year-old had been out of prison a little more than half a year after serving 13 and a half years on a 2005 murder conviction, along with a subsequent conviction of assaulting a corrections officer or inmate (the charge doesn’t specify which) in 2010. Sassafras pleaded guilty in both cases. A spokesman for the state’s corrections department said in an email that his time served equated to the state threshold of more than half a sentence needed to earn parole.
His death came during a September swell in violent crime in Baltimore. One week earlier, two men were wounded in separate shootings hours apart on the same block of Vine Street. In terms of homicides, the city recorded 37 on the month in September, a high in a year that’s otherwise seen murders trending downward overall. Two more were killed in shootings within three hours today, one in Rosemont in Southwest Baltimore and another in Central Park Heights.
Tuggle said that he was happy he didn’t have to have to call Lippe’s family and deliver worse news last Sunday after the shootout. “At the end of the day I think we’re fortunate not just as a police department, but as a city that we didn’t lose an officer during that shooting.”
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