“The threat caused by Mr. Finan Berhe, running directly at the officer with a knife in his hand, disobeying all orders to drop the knife justified the use of deadly force in this case,” Christopher Sandmann, a prosecutor with the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office, said at a news conference.
Cohen fired five rounds at Berhe — the first when Berhe was 14 feet from the officer and the final after he was less than 10 feet away, prosecutors said.
The Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office investigated the shooting. Because prosecutors and police work closely together on criminal cases, Howard and Montgomery prosecutors have a standing agreement to review each other’s police shootings to avoid a conflict of interest.
Over the past two years, how and when Montgomery police use fatal force has become a source of political and public debate in the suburban county. It factored into last year’s protracted and disjointed search for a new police chief, which ultimately led to the selection of Marcus Jones, a longtime department veteran.
After the shooting, the Silver Spring Justice Coalition called for changes to the county’s use of force and de-escalation tactics.
“Finan Berhe was a valued member of our community and his family and our community are still grieving,” Justice Coalition co-founder Katie Stauss said Friday. “The county did not and still does not value his life.”
Berhe’s family could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Howard County prosecutors said Cohen, a 17-year veteran of the department who arrived first on the scene, was immediately faced with an uncooperative and aggressive subject. In an interview, Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson said Cohen’s actions were understandable given the situation.
“You’re a human being. And someone is coming towards you with the apparent intent to end your life,” Gibson said. “You did nothing to deserve this. You just want to go home to your family, and live your life. And your job requires you to intercede.”
Gibson noted that Cohen had tried to back up and when he fired his first round, Berhe was charging at him and less than two seconds from reaching the officer.
“That distance can be covered very quickly,” Gibson said. “Somebody’s got a knife. And they’re ready to harm you. And they’re ignoring your commands. You’re literally begging them to please stop.”
Gibson said the idea that Cohen could have tried to wrestle the knife from Berhe is the stuff of a TV drama, not reality.
“There has to be pragmatic realism to how we’re going to approach these things,” Gibson said. “You can’t have fantasy ideas in your head when you’re constructing problems that come at you in reality.”
After Cohen shot the first three rounds, Gibson said, Berhe was still moving toward him. He fired a fourth round while Berhe still had the knife, Gibson said. After the fifth round, Berhe fell to the ground.
Three of the shots struck Berhe, prosecutors said. Two missed.
According to a report of the shooting released Friday — and posted on the Montgomery County state’s attorney’s website — a resident along Hadden Manor Court called 911 at 2:13 p.m. to report that his neighbor had just thrown a rock through his window. The caller also said the neighbor, Berhe, was outside and had a large kitchen knife in his hand. At 2:21 p.m., the report said, Cohen pulled up to the scene, alone in his patrol car. No other officers had arrived yet. Cohen got out of his car, spotted Berhe holding the knife, and drew his pistol, the report said.
“Immediately, Berhe began running at Cohen,” the report said.
The officer yelled for him to put the knife down, prosecutors said.
“These commands appeared to be loud and clear and Berhe seemed to understand them as he quickly stopped running at the officer,” the reported stated.
At that point, according to the report and the body-camera footage, Berhe backed up. The sergeant slowly followed him, according to his body-camera video, keeping a distance of perhaps 25 feet, with his weapon still drawn. Moments later, as heard on the body-camera recording, Cohen issued his final command — “Get on the ground! I don’t want to shoot you.” Berhe then charged at the officer a second, fatal time.
Jones on Friday called the incident a horrible tragedy.
According to the prosecutors’ report, Cohen “had no prior history of ever using his firearm in the line of duty and no history of any citizen complaints filed against him.”
The shooting was first investigated by Montgomery County homicide detectives. They spoke with eight witnesses, studied Cohen’s body camera recording and studied a cellphone video taken by one of the witnesses. Gibson’s office then reviewed the detectives’ findings and conducted its own investigation.
Two witnesses said that afternoon that they heard Berhe tell a townhouse resident to “call the police” because he was “ready to go,” prosecutors said.
Gibson said the investigation looked into whether Berhe was suffering from mental illness: “There is certainly some inferences you can draw from his actions, but there’s no actual conclusive evidence that we found that show that he was suffering from a mental breakdown or was undergoing mental health treatment,” Gibson said.
Stauss, the Silver Spring Justice Coalition co-founder, was organizing a protest against the prosecutors’ decision Friday night in downtown Silver Spring. Strauss faulted Cohen for immediately pointing his gun at Berhe and shouting commands. Better police policies and training, and more mental health resources, would have yielded a response that was less force-focused, Stauss said.
“The county should have had another way to respond to this,” she said.
Montgomery State’s Attorney John McCarthy on Friday addressed broader discussions in the county underway of trying to bring mental health professionals on certain police calls. He noted that because there was a call about a man with a knife, an officer would certainly be part of any such response.
“Because of the kind of situation this officer was responding to, you’re never going to eliminate the need for an officer, for the safety of the mental health specialist, to go along with them,” he said.