According to people who knew him, Rudy Bell Sr. never caused anybody any trouble. A homeless veteran in his mid 60s who suffered from schizophrenia, he spent his days and nights sheltering in an abandoned row house that neighbors say he only left occasionally.
It was in this vacant home in the 1600 block of West Lexington St. where he was fatally shot Aug. 20 in a conflict with two Baltimore Police officers. According to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, Bell died as a result of a bullet fired into his upper body. Guglielmi told the AFRO that officers were responding to a burglary call when they encountered Bell on the second floor of the vacant property around 12:30 p.m. When police arrived, he said, they announced themselves.
Then, according to what the officers told their superiors, Bell lunged at one of the officers, cutting his face with either a knife or a bottle.
The officer “at that point, in defense and in fear for his life, fired at least one round, striking Mr. Bell after he was attacked,” said Guglielmi. “Mr. Bell died on the scene as a result of his injuries and the officer was treated at Mercy Hospital for non-life threatening lacerations to the face.”
The names of the police officers were not readily available.
People who knew Bell, as well as community leaders, said police should have avoided shooting Bell. They said police should have de-escalated the situation before firing shots. Members of the Baltimore Peoples Assembly gathered at the scene of the shooting on Aug. 21 to protest what they characterize as the latest incident in a pattern of police brutality.
“The only people who know what happened are Mr. Bell, who is unfortunately dead, and the police,” said Bonnie Lane, a representative of the People's Assembly against Police Brutality, Racism and Misconduct. “We believe there are other methods that the police could have used to take the knife--if he actually had one--other than to kill him.”
Guglielmi defended the officer’s use of lethal force. “Mace wouldn't have really helped the situation,” he said, because it could have affected the officers.
"Per the officers’ training, when someone engages a police officer or a member of the public in what could be a life threatening manor, they are to respond with deadly force,” he said. "It's also possible that the suspect could have grabbed the officer's weapon if the officer was incapacitated by the mace himself," he said.
Guglielmi said there was “no way” for officers to know that Bell was mentally ill.
Cornelius Owens, 21, who lives near the house where Bell died, said he was at home just a few doors away when the shooting occurred.
“The police could have handled the situation better,” he said. He remembered Bell as a man who stayed to himself and “minded his own business.”
“You might see him bringing in his bags every once in a while, but nothing serious,” Cornelius Owens said.
Owens and other neighbors said the local block captains constantly harassed Bell about living in the vacant building, even though he had been in the community for years.
"They didn't like that he was living there and they were always picking with him," said Taivon Owens, 19, who said he believed the block captains were partly responsible for Bell’s death.
“How can it be a burglary if it’s vacant and there’s nothing in there?” said Shairora Whitaker, 20, who was also upset that block captains called police to report a burglary in process. “Who was he going to rob? They didn't have to lie and say there was a burglary going on," she said. Whitaker was also outside when the confrontation occurred. She called the police officer’s above-the-eye injury a “little scratch.”
Other neighbors who didn’t want to identify themselves said that Bell had been in the neighborhood for decades, but that he was never quite the same after he returned home from service in the Vietnam War.
Police are investigating the shooting and the state’s attorney’s office will conduct a separate investigation to determine if the level of force employed was appropriate.