A Philadelphia SWAT team officer was fatally shot early Friday in the city’s Frankford section as he was trying to arrest a man suspected of committing a murder in 2019.
Cpl. James O’Connor IV, 46, was struck in an arm and shoulder when at least one person began firing through the closed door of a second-floor bedroom as officers sought to secure the rowhouse, Homicide Capt. Jason Smith said at an afternoon news conference.
O’Connor, a 23-year veteran of the force, was a married father of two whose family has deep roots in the Police Department, officials said. His father also was a city cop, and his son is an officer in the city’s Sixth District. His daughter serves in the Air Force, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said.
It was the first time in five years that a Philadelphia police officer was killed in the line of duty. As city officials unveiled unprecedented measures to combat the rapidly expanding coronavirus outbreak, the early morning incident attracted an outpouring of grief.
“We just want everybody to know it’s a very sad day, not just for officers here, but it’s a very sad day for the family, who is here and who is mourning and is still trying to stomach all this,” Outlaw said outside Temple University Hospital, where O’Connor died.
Mayor Jim Kenney choked up while asking residents to pray for O’Connor’s relatives. He ordered all City of Philadelphia flags to be flown at half-staff for 30 days in O’Connor’s memory.
“It’s a tough job, and [officers] do their best for us every day,” Kenney said. “This is a bad day.”
Smith said O’Connor was shot about 5:40 a.m. on the 1600 block of Bridge Street when he and other Special Weapons and Tactics officers, along with members of a homicide fugitive task force, entered the two-story white and brick rowhouse.
Officers had been trying to serve an arrest warrant for Hassan Elliott, 21, wanted in a March 2019 robbery and murder around the corner from the house. Before they could reach him, more than a dozen bullets flew through the door.
O’Connor’s colleagues returned fire, and two people behind the door were wounded, police said. One of them, Khalif Sears, 18, had been wanted as a second suspect with Elliott in the 2019 killing, Smith said.
Sears was still hospitalized but was expected to survive and face murder charges. Four other people were in the house at the time, Smith said, one of whom was struck by gunfire but was quickly treated and released into police custody.
Investigators found at least nine firearms and drugs in the house, Smith said. All of the people inside were being questioned at the Homicide Unit as police sought to determine who pulled the trigger.
O’Connor was taken to Temple, where he was declared dead at 6:09 a.m. A large contingent of officers converged on the medical center in the predawn hours, soon joined by Outlaw — in just her second month as the city’s top cop — Kenney, and other city officials.
O’Connor was the first Philadelphia officer to be fatally wounded in the line of duty since March 5, 2015, when Officer Robert Wilson III was killed in a gun battle with a pair of robbers inside a North Philadelphia video game store.
Elliott, whom O’Connor had been seeking to apprehend, had been arrested at least twice in recent years.
According to court records, Elliott’s adult criminal record began in June 2017, when he was arrested for gun and drug offenses. He pleaded guilty in January 2018, and received a nine- to 23-month jail sentence but was immediately paroled to three years’ probation, the records say.
In January 2019, he was arrested for drug possession, according to Jane Roh, spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office.
Roh said Elliott appeared in court for that case on Feb. 6, 2019, and again on March 1 of that year. The second time, prosecutors believe, Elliott left the courthouse and on the same day took part in the shooting death of Tyree Tyrone on the 5300 block of Duffield Street in Frankford.
Authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on March 26. But Elliott stopped showing up in court, according to Roh, and prosecutors dropped the drug case, which had been scheduled to go to trial March 27. The court records for his possession case were not publicly available.
Roh said the decision to withdraw the drug charges “had no bearing on public safety” because the homicide warrant was far more serious.
But John McNesby, president of the police officers’ union and a frequent critic of District Attorney Larry Krasner, was not appeased.
During an afternoon news conference at Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia, McNesby said Elliott “should have never been out on the street,” and blamed Krasner for creating a “revolving door” for criminals by enacting policies that have sought to reduce the prison population.
McNesby also said members of his union had blocked Krasner from entering the hospital Friday morning.
“He was told by my people he wasn’t welcome, and the family did not wish to see him,” said McNesby, who was inside the hospital when Krasner arrived.
Roh called it “sad and frankly ghoulish that anyone, much less an authority figure, would choose to spread lies for personal or political gain in response to this tragedy.”
Hours after the shooting, a heavy police presence remained at the shooting scene.
Patrice Bailey, 65, who has lived on the 5300 block of Hedge Street for 18 years, stood on her front porch in disbelief.
“This is a ... shame, just sad,” she said. “The man was trying to do his job and got killed.”
Rock Murray, 70, who lived next door to Elliott, said the alleged gunman moved in last year and had been a bad neighbor ever since.
“I don’t know the gentleman, but I know he was a fool, because he used to be outside at 3, 4 in the morning acting like a jackass,” Murray said. “Him and his friends, high. So, whatever he gets, he deserves."
Meanwhile, well-wishers and mourners streamed into O’Connor’s red-brick rowhouse on a tidy and quiet Northeast Philadelphia street.
Sgt. Stephen Jones of the Willistown Township Police Department in Chester County, a friend of the fallen officer, drove to O’Connor’s home Friday morning after hearing the news from a mutual friend.
“We grew up together in Kensington. He’s my best friend,” said Jones, 49, after emerging from the family’s home and walking toward his car.
Jones said O’Connor graduated from North Catholic High School and started in the Police Academy while in his early 20s. O’Connor had been married to his wife for almost 25 years, according to Jones, and recently became a grandfather after his son, James V, and his wife had a baby.
Joe Sullivan, who stepped down recently as deputy commissioner and had overseen SWAT operations for years, said O’Connor was straightforward and honest — a man who loved his unit and helped resolve many volatile situations without incident.
“In SWAT, it’s not about rank, it’s about knowledge and experience — and he had both. He died leading his operators,” Sullivan said, calling O’Connor’s death “an incredible loss to the city, the department, and his unit.”
Inquirer staff writers Mike Newall and Joseph A. Gambardello contributed to this article.