2020 | Police & Fire

UPDATED: County police officer cleared after fatally shooting man who came at him with knife

Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office reviewed May 7 incident, issued finding

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Howard County State's Attorney Richard H. Gibson Jr. addresses reporters on Friday outside the Montgomery County Circuit Court building in Rockville.

Photo by Dan Schere

This story was updated at 8 p.m. on Oct. 9, 2020 with additional comments

This story also was updated at 5:50 p.m. Oct. 15, 2020, to add comments from Sgt. Rebecca Innocenti explaining an agreement between Montgomery and Howard counties.

A Montgomery County police officer who fatally shot a man who ran at him with a large kitchen knife in May has been cleared of wrongdoing, the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office announced on Friday.

Sgt. David Cohen, a 17-year-veteran of the force, fatally shot 30-year-old Finan Berhe on May 7 following a confrontation.

On May 7, police got a call around 2:15 p.m. for a man holding a knife who had thrown a rock through a neighbor’s window on Hadden Manor Court in White Oak.

According to body-worn camera footage, Cohen got out of his police vehicle and told Berhe to put the knife down. When Berhe refused, Cohen called for backup.

Cohen then gave multiple commands to Berhe to drop the knife and get on the ground. Berhe initially rushed toward Cohen as the officer pointed his gun and gave commands to stop. Berhe then retreated toward the curb, never letting go of the knife.

At one point, Cohen could be heard saying “I don’t want to shoot you.” When Berhe refused, Cohen fired about five shots at Berhe, who fell to the ground. Berhe was taken to the hospital and later died of his injuries.

Following the shooting, the Howard County’s State’s Attorney’s Office agreed to conduct an investigation as part of a reciprocal agreement it has with Montgomery County. Under the agreement, if an officer causes a death in one jurisdiction, the other’s state’s attorney’s office conducts the review.

According to a report summary from the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office, Cohen’s use of deadly force was justified. Berhe posed a threat to the officer’s safety by running at him with the knife and refusing to put the knife down, the report summary says.

Howard County State’s Attorney Richard H. Gibson Jr. told reporters on Friday that, besides the body-camera footage, his office also reviewed cellphone video, 911 calls, crime scene photos and analysis, home security footage and police reports.

“Based upon that information, we concluded that although incredibly tragic and unfortunate, the officer Sgt. David Cohen’s actions were lawful, and therefore we will not be pursuing any charges against him,” he said.

Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said Berhe’s death is “unfortunate,” but “at the end of the day, I believe it has been reviewed in an honest and fair way.”

The report summary states that case law dictates that the use of deadly force can only be used when an officer has “probable cause” to believe someone “poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others.”

The report stated that Berhe never spoke during the interaction in response to Cohen’s commands, but maintained eye contact.

“It is clear at this point that Berhe poses a threat to both Cohen and any other civilians located in the immediate vicinity,” the report states.

Howard County Deputy State’s Attorney Chris Sandmann said Friday that after Berhe threw a rock and neighbors called the police, one neighbor asked him why. Berhe responded “call the police. I’m just ready to go,” Sandmann said.

Sandmann added that after Berhe was shot, a neighbor who was at the scene yelled, “No, Fin. Why’d you do it?” referring to the fact that Berhe ran toward Cohen with the knife.

Sgt. Rebecca Innocenti, a Montgomery County police spokeswoman, told Bethesda Beat that county police first investigate the circumstances of all cases in which an officer uses force.
When Montgomery County’s investigation is complete, Howard County conducts its review to determine whether the use of force was reasonable and whether criminal charges are appropriate, she said.
Innocenti said Montgomery County also conducts an internal review after Howard County is finished, to determine if any department procedures were violated. That review, she said, is not a criminal investigation.

Would social worker have changed outcome?

Berhe’s death and its aftermath comes as police departments, including Montgomery County’s, are under increased scrutiny due to the number of people who have died in police custody. There has been outrage and protests in many cities.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and the County Council have introduced a number of police reform efforts. Over the summer, the council passed a bill that restricts the department’s use of deadly force in certain situations.

Elrich has also, on a number of occasions, suggested that more investment is needed in social workers and other mental health services as part of an effort to “reimagine” policing. Some social justice groups have suggested that Berhe’s death could have been prevented if a mobile crisis team had been present.

When asked Friday whether a social worker would have made a difference, Jones said it might have created an even more dangerous situation.

“Social workers would not have responded without us for the fact that he had a knife. We don’t want to put social workers in a place where they could get harmed,” he said.

Jones said, however, that he supports the general idea of social workers being involved in police calls as long as officers are present.

Gibson said he thinks that a social worker at the scene on May 7 would have been in danger, just like Cohen was.

“When it’s you, and someone is running at you, with bad intent and a knife in hand, you’re not gonna allow yourself to get stabbed to death,” Gibson said. “And so you have to take action. And that’s what would have happened, whether it be a social worker, or the officer, as he did in this case.”

Asked if Berhe had a mental illness, Gibson said the question was explored during the investigation, but those who were interviewed, including family members, said Berhe had no history of mental health problems.

“It’s our understanding that there was some talk of Mr. Berhe suffering some kind of mental breakdown. Our investigation did not find anything conclusive to support that fact,” Gibson said.

Officer’s actions praised

Cohen was placed on paid administrative leave immediately following the shooting, which is the department’s policy when an officer shoots someone.

The report notes that Cohen had no history of using his service weapon in the line of duty or history of public complaints in his 17 years with the department.

The report says Cohen’s response after the shooting was a “textbook example of how an officer should respond in this type of situation.”

When asked about the praise for Cohen, Gibson said the officer did everything he could to de-escalate the situation by giving Berhe multiple commands to drop the knife and get on the ground.

Gibson said that after Cohen shot Berhe, the officer immediately changed his attention from saving his own life to rendering first-aid and trying to save Berhe’s.

“Those are the types of behaviors that we would hope to see. An avoidance of taking life to the degree that you can,” Gibson said. “Once you do have to engage in lethal force, switching gears and trying to save the individual who you just had to act against [is good].”

Jones said Cohen will return to duty when he is ready. He will first go through preparations in the department’s training academy, the office of stress management and anything else the department considers necessary before he returns.

Mixed reactions

The shooting of Berhe is the second fatal shooting by a police officer this year in Montgomery County, and the third since 2018.

The Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office is also investigating the shooting of Duncan Lemp on March 12 in Potomac. That investigation was ongoing as of August, and the officer who shot Lemp has not been identified.

Robert White was fatally shot in Silver Spring in June 2018 by Officer Anand Badgujar.

A review by Howard County, which concluded in April 2019, cleared Badgujar and found his use of deadly force was justified. But social justice groups have called for the investigation to be reopened.

Following the announcement of the Berhe investigation on Friday, the Silver Spring Justice Coalition wrote on Twitter that it planned to organize a protest in Silver Spring’s Veterans Plaza.

“Finan Berhe was a valued member of our community and his family and our community are still grieving. The county did not and still does not value his life,” the group wrote.

County Council Member Tom Hucker wrote on Twitter that he was disappointed in Friday’s announcement.

“What a shame. #FinanBerhe and his family deserve justice. This underscores the urgent need to expand our Mobile Crisis Team so we can send trained behavioral health professionals to our residents in crisis, not just armed police officers,” he wrote.

Council Member Will Jawando, a frequent advocate for police reform, called Friday’s news “a failure of the system on many levels.” 

“You had a young man who’d never been in trouble. An Uber driver killed in front of his parents’ home. And it didn’t have to be that way. There’s a lot of ways, in my opinion, that that situation could have been de-escalated before he charged,” he said in an interview. 

When asked about Jones’ assertion that having a social worker on the call could have made things worse, Jawando said that “wasn’t accurate.” He pointed to a Eugene, Oregon, mobile crisis intervention program CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) as an example of an effective method for de-escalation techniques.  

Jawando said a similar type of mobile crisis intervention team could have been used in the Berhe case. He also said the officer could have handled the situation differently. 

“De-escalation is creating time. Creating space. The words you use,” Jawando said. “There’s a lot of things that could have happened.

“If the officer had stayed in his car and there’s backup. If you have more officers, you have more options. If you’re one on one and someone charges you with a knife, you’re limited in your options.

“If you get out of your car and your gun’s not drawn and you say, ‘Hey, man, what’s going on? Are you OK? How can I help you?’” 

Torrie Cooke, the president of Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 35, the county’s police union, wrote in a statement on Facebook Friday evening that Berhe’s death was tragic, but Cohen’s use of force was justified. 

“As the State’s Attorney noted, the officer’s action was warranted due to ‘the threat caused by Finan Berhe’ as he charged the officer with a large knife and failed to respond to the officer’s clear demands and warnings. The body-cam evidence clearly showed that the threat was imminent and potentially lethal, and that clear directions and warnings were given,” Cooke’s statement said.  

Cooke added that Montgomery County residents should feel “doubly reassured about the decision” because Howard County prosecutors determined that Cohen’s actions were justified. 

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com