Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Exclusive: Fatal Philly police shooting caught on video

Victim's family supports police, but asks why he had to die

Story Highlights
  • Last August, Michael Berry, 40, was shot and killed by a plainclothes Philadelphia Police officer.
  • The shooting of Berry was ruled justified in February.
  • Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said he does not know if the shooting could have been prevented.

Part 3 in an occasional Philly.com series on Philadelphia Police shootings. On a mobile device? Click here to watch the video.

Tom Berry has watched his brother die five times.

On a steamy August night last year, Michael Berry, 40, who had just stabbed a man, was shot and killed by a plainclothes Philadelphia Police officer. A surveillance video camera recorded the incident.

Though he's reviewed the video over and over, Tom Berry doesn't understand why the officer fired seven shots at his younger brother, striking him six times in the chest and back.

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  • "Couldn't they have just stopped him, wounded Mike in the arm, the leg or hip?" he asked. "Why didn't the officers stop it from escalating?"

    More than nine months later, city authorities have not provided the Berry family any closure. Tom Berry said they have received no information about the District Attorney's investigation.

    "In an instance like this, our office would notify police that it was cleared and that would be it," said Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for the D.A.'s office.

    The shooting of Mike Berry was ruled justified in February.

    The D.A.'s office has a limited role in the probe of officer shootings, said First Assistant D.A. Ed McCann.

    "Our sole role is to determine whether a crime was committed and whether we can prove it in court," said McCann.

    Philadelphia police last year shot 52 suspects. Of those, 15 died. The number of shootings was up nearly 50 percent over the previous year and the highest it's been in over a decade.

    "When you have as many as we've had, it gets people wondering if they were all justified," said Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said in an interview with Philly.com. He was speaking about the total number of shootings, not about any specific case.

    After a Philly.com analysis, the U.S. Department of Justice said this week it will review the police department's use of lethal force following a formal request by Ramsey.

    Spokesman Lt. John Stanford said the announcement had taken the rank-and-file by surprise and been misinterpreted by some.

    "This is a push to make this department better," Stanford said. "This is not an investigation or an audit."

    Philadelphia's reputation as one of the nation's most violent big cities was borne out last year by the sheer number of suspects - 101 - that officers confronted who were carrying firearms, Ramsey said.

    The overwhelming majority of last year's shootings were clear-cut examples of police protecting the public and themselves.

    But the Aug. 26 shooting of Mike Berry exemplifies the gray area that often surrounds such shootings. Officers often walk into chaos.

    Mike Berry was no angel. And his brother makes no apologies for him. He had several previous run-ins with the law, Tom Berry said. Court documents show a 1991 conviction for robbery, another in 1992 for contempt of court, and a 1997 arrest for stealing a car.

    A graduate of South Philadelphia High School and a father to three children, Mike Berry and his family had moved to Jim Thorpe in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he found a job as a supermarket night produce manager and hoped to remake his life.

    Last summer, his marriage fell apart and he returned to Philadelphia, moving in with an old friend in the city's Feltonville section. In early August, he took a job as a bartender.

    On that summer night, the humidity was a stifling 82 percent when Mike went out for a few cold beers with a friend. The drinks would be his last.

    A surveillance camera caught images of them drinking on the sidewalk in front of the Paraiso, a bar and restaurant near the intersection of D Street and Wyoming Avenue in Feltonville.

    It's not clear what occurred before 11:45 p.m. - Tom Berry said he heard his brother was involved in an altercation inside the bar - but what followed unwound quickly. The video, documenting it all, was obtained exclusively by Philly.com.

    With at least four witnesses watching, a brawl erupted between Mike Berry and a man with a long ponytail. The younger Berry, who his brother said was never much of a fighter, delivered one roundhouse punch after the other, repeatedly knocking the ponytailed man to the ground.

    More than a dozen people poured out of the Paraiso to watch as the fight spilled into the street. Mike Berry took off his T-shirt, eventually walking away, only to return a short time later with an object he held behind his back.

    With the ponytailed man now in the passenger's seat of a small car, Berry strode up to the vehicle, reached into the passenger's side window and lunged repeatedly.

    Someone called 911 to report a street fight.

    Less than a minute later, the headlights of an unmarked police car swept the sidewalk. The driver and two more plainclothes officers got out. Berry backed away from the car and, shirtless, began to move toward the bar. An officer wearing a yellow T-shirt walked into his path.

    The driver of the unmarked car had barely rounded the car's hood when he fired the first of at least seven rounds. As Berry spun to the sidewalk, a shiny object appeared to fall from his hand.

    Police recovered a knife at the scene, Ramsey said.

    The shots pierced Berry's chest, abdomen, back, left flank, left buttock and thigh, according to the autopsy report. A toxicology test showed he was clearly drunk, but other than over-the-counter pain killers, had no other drugs in his system.

    According to Ramsey, the outcome of an Internal Affairs investigation is pending. Though he did not identify him, Ramsey said the officer had been involved in a prior shooting. The officer is back on the job.

    The man with the ponytail, who had been stabbed several times in the face and neck, lived, Ramsey said. "But I don't know if he's still alive."

    Ramsey reviewed the video for the first time last week. He said he didn't know if the officer who shot Mike Berry saw the knife.

    He described two violations of police training procedures: One of the officers allowed the distance between Berry and himself to close so that it could have put the officer in peril, Ramsey said.

    Second: Berry's body was left too long on the sidewalk before medics arrived.

    Tom Berry said he bears the police no grudges. 

    "I still have respect for the officers and anyone in blue," he said. "I have friends and family who are police officers."

    His brother's behavior that night "wasn't excusable," he said, but "it did not merit a death sentence."

    Ramsey said he does not know if the shooting could have been prevented. 

    "We send our people into the neighborhoods and they encounter some very dangerous people," he said. "You have to put it all in context."

    Officers never know what they will encounter when they first approach a situation that could be potentially perilous, Ramsey said. Police are required to make life-or-death decisions in a nano-second and a single camera is not enough of a witness.

    Police are not trained to shoot to wound, but to aim at the largest body mass.

    Ramsey told Philly.com that he could not be a fair judge of the officer's actions.

    "I wasn't there. I don't know what warnings were shouted," he said. "You can replay a tape, but you can't replay the incident."

    Contact Philly.com staff writer Sam Wood at 215 854 2796, @samwoodiii or samwood@phillynews.com

    This story is the third in an occasional Philly.com series on police shootings.

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