An unarmed man was shot to death by police officers in Prince George's County early yesterday after he led them on a foot chase, fought off a police dog and tried to drive away in a patrol car while struggling with an officer inside, county police say.
Police said they encountered the man while investigating a burglary in Seat Pleasant. Officers had chased him across parking lots, through a strip of woods and over a fence, tackling him several times, before he leapt into the idling patrol car.
A Metro transit police officer, who was assisting in the chase, jumped into the car in an attempt to arrest the man, Prince George's police said. But the man pushed the officer partly out the driver's side door, put the cruiser into reverse and hit the gas.
As the car careened across Central Avenue, six county officers opened fire, as did the Metro transit officer, who was clinging to the outside of the cruiser, said Prince George's County Police Chief John S. Farrell.
The man, whose name the police were still trying to confirm late yesterday, was pronounced dead at the scene in the 7800 block of Central Avenue, a hilly street that runs through a mostly commercial section of Seat Pleasant.
The Metro transit officer, whom police did not identify, was taken to George Washington University Hospital, where he was treated for injuries to his right hand, right shoulder and back and released. The police dog suffered an injured leg and was treated by a local veterinarian. There were no other injuries.
It was the fourth fatal shooting by Prince George's police this year.
Farrell said the incident began about 2:45 a.m. when two Prince George's officers were patrolling a shopping center in the 7800 block of Central Avenue.
The officers heard glass breaking at a county Department of Health social services center, one of several storefronts in the shopping center. They saw a van, later determined to have been stolen, parked near a stack of office furniture that appeared to have been removed from inside.
As the officers called for backup, the man fled out a back door. The officers gave chase. Minutes later, officers, aided by the police dog, discovered the man in a strip of woods bordering the center. The dog cornered him and police tried to subdue him, but he broke free and the chase resumed.
"There were several confrontations with the backup officers taking place over several minutes," Farrell said.
The man ran toward a church on Central Avenue and tried to break in by slamming his body into the glass front door. But the glass didn't break, and he climbed a chain-link fence, beyond which he discovered the idling cruiser.
The six county officers who opened fire were placed on routine administrative leave pending an internal investigation, Farrell said. The transit officer is on medical leave and will be placed on administrative duty when he returns, said Polly Hanson, deputy chief of Metro transit police.
The man's body was taken to the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore for an autopsy.
Farrell defended the decision by his officers to shoot, saying they feared for the life of the Metro officer.
"They were really in a life-or-death struggle," he said. "The officers were trying to use less-than-deadly force to control him but they just couldn't do it. The question comes up: Why couldn't you control him? Why couldn't you stop him? And the officers did try to do this for a significant amount of time."
Police said they believe the man was unarmed and acting alone.
Staff writer Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.