This story was updated at 12:33 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2021, to include additional comments from Gaithersburg Police Chief Mark Sroka and again at 3:57 p.m. to include a response from Sroka to the Silver Spring Justice Coalition
The Silver Spring Justice Coalition, a local civil rights watchdog group, is demanding more transparency from the city of Gaithersburg after police fatally shot a man on Friday.
On Friday, four plain clothes officers confronted and chased 24-year-old Kwamena Ocran after receiving a report that he was armed with a handgun. Police Chief Mark Sroka has said that when Ocran pulled out a handgun near a grass sidewalk area, at least one officer fired at Ocran.
Officers tried to save Ocran’s life, but he died at the scene.
On Saturday the officers were identified as: Sgt. Willie Delgado, Cpl. Larbi Dakkouni, Officer James Doyle and Officer Kyle Khuen. They have been placed on paid administrative leave while the shooting is reviewed.
On Sunday, police responded to the same area for a report of a shooting near a vigil for Ocran. Police said Darius Cooper, 25, of Germantown was found with traumatic injuries and died, but they have not released any other details of what happened.
On Wednesday, the Silver Spring Justice Coalition released a statement demanding more answers about Friday’s shooting. Its questions include:
• Whether officers warned Ocran before shooting him and exhausted all other options before using force
• Whether Ocran had a concealed weapon, or posed an immediate threat
• Whether Ocran understood that Degado, Dakkouni, Doyle and Khuen were officers
• Whether uniformed officers were first sent to the scene before plain clothes officers
• Whether neighbors and other witnesses were interviewed by police
The coalition also called for police to release any body-worn camera footage and the audio of the 911 call, if either exist.
Sroka wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat Tuesday afternoon that the officers were not wearing body cameras on Friday because they were in plain clothes, and that assignment “entails working in a covert capacity.”
In a separate email to the coalition, Sroka wrote that he understands that in the wake of Ocran’s death, the “incident has raised many questions” in the community.
He explained that the shooting is currently being investigated by the Montgomery County police department, and will then be reviewed by the Howard County State’s Attorney’s office, under a reciprocal agreement between the two counties.
“At this early stage of the investigation, we all likely have more questions than answers available to make a fully informed assessment of what happened,” Sroka wrote. “We are committed to providing the community with as much information as possible without compromising the investigation and with an understanding that we are not the lead agency for this investigation and the decision to release information ultimately rests with the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office.”
Sroka also wrote that a Gaithersburg officer has not fatally shot someone in at least 20 years. He emphasized that the department is following the practice of using an outside agency to conduct the investigation, and that because the investigation is still in its early stages, he can’t provide additional information.
“Thorough investigations that are done appropriately take time and the lack of details this early in the investigation is not an indication of a lack of transparency but instead a challenging balance of providing the public with answers they deserve while protecting the integrity of the process of the investigation,” he wrote. “We fully expect the investigation to provide the details we need to make fact-based judgments.”
Sroka included Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones, County Executive Marc Elrich, and all nine members of the County Council, along with their staffs, in the email.
The coalition asked how often officers approach people who are suspected of a crime, writing in a statement that “the practice of plain clothes policing has been questioned nationally, because it is associated with abuse of power and increased complaints, and clearly should be used for surveillance only, if at all.”
The Street Crimes Unit, according to the city’s website, “addresses crime patterns, gathers intelligence, and enforces narcotic laws and acts as a liaison with similar units of allied agencies to de-conflict or coordinate investigations.”
On Monday, Sroka shared details with the Gaithersburg City Council about Friday’s shooting.
Sroka said the department’s Street Crimes Unit heard that Ocran had a gun, but was prohibited from having one, and that he had a criminal history of “robbery offenses.” Sroka said Ocran recently was released from incarceration.
“Those officers believed that he was going to commit another robbery. Based on this information, police surveillance was initiated,” Sroka said.
He said officers identified themselves and tried to stop Ocran near 14 S. Frederick Ave., which is Chelsea Park Apartments, and when he fled, officers chased him.
At 5:53 p.m. on Friday, Sroka said, at least one officer shot Ocran near 12 S. Frederick Ave., which is also in the apartment complex.
Sroka had said during a press conference on Friday that Ocran ran across Md. 355 and officers chased him. But on Monday, Officer Dan Lane, a police spokesman, told Bethesda Beat that the entire pursuit took place in the apartment complex.
“Initially, that’s what we were under the impression happened,” Lane said about Ocran possibly running across the highway. “But then when we got more information, [we realized the chase was] all in the apartment complex.”
The Silver Spring Justice Coalition also asked in its statement on Monday whether the Street Crimes Unit, and specifically the four officers present at Friday’s event, have had complaints lodged against them.
“We note that, since you reported within hours of the incident that the victim ‘turned’ and ‘displayed a gun’ — details which can bias the public toward the police version of events — there can be no reasonable barrier to answering our questions immediately,” their statement read.
“Should you choose not to respond, or to fall back on a statement that ‘the incident is under investigation,’ we will understand that you choose at this time to provide only those details that would have the effect of shielding your department from any accountability for taking a resident’s life.”
Friday’s shooting is being investigated by the Montgomery County police Major Crimes Division.
When the investigation is complete, the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office will conduct an independent review as part of a reciprocal agreement between the two counties. Under the agreement, one county reviews all shootings by officers in the other county that result in injury or death.
Because of the ongoing investigation, Sroka told the council he could not provide more information on Monday.
“I understand that you and many people in the community have questions, and I ask for your patience in waiting for a full, fair and impartial investigation to be completed,” he said.
Sroka also briefly addressed the investigation into Cooper’s death, after he was found near a vigil for Ocran at the same apartment complex Sunday night.
Sroka said officers had been assigned to the vigil, which started peacefully with 25 people around 4 p.m. on Sunday. The crowd had diminished to 10 people at 6:11 p.m., when officers detailed at the event got a report that someone nearby had been shot.
Cooper was found with traumatic injuries, and officers tried to save his life, Sroka said. Cooper was then taken to a hospital, where he died of his injuries.
Police have not confirmed that Cooper was shot.
Sroka said that as of Monday evening, no arrests had been made in connection with Cooper’s death, and the case is being investigated by Montgomery County police as a homicide.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org