Last Wednesday, Detective Sean Suiter, along with an as-yet-unnamed partner, were in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Harlem Park. Suiter’s usual partner in the homicide unit, Detective Jonathan Jones, was off that day.
The police version of what happened, as relayed to the Baltimore Sun, goes like this: The detectives were looking for a witness to an unsolved triple homicide case that is nearly a year old when they spotted “suspicious activity” nearby. Suiter and his backup partner split up to cover different exits of the block. Suiter then confronted a man, who shot him in the head after the detective tried to speak. Suiter, an 18-year veteran of Baltimore’s police force, and a 43-year-old married father of five, was pronounced dead a day later, becoming the city’s 309th murder victim of 2017.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis condemned the killing as “ridiculous, absurd, unnecessary loss of life,” and the killer as “heartless, ruthless, soulless.” On the night of the murder, the police department offered a vague description of the suspect: a black man who may be injured, wearing a black jacket with a white stripe.
The neighborhood was promptly put on lockdown. Over the course of the week, the reward fund to find Suiter’s killer climbed to $215,000 – a figure experts think might be a state record. The Harlem Park neighborhood lockdown was justified as a way for cops to preserve the crime scene and collect evidence.
Davis defended the measures, emphasizing the unique role police play in society. “In America, in this free society, our democracy, police – and I don’t mean to sound like I’m teaching a civics class here, but policing in America is special,” said Davis on Monday in a press conference. “It’s difficult, it’s special though … any loss of life is unacceptable, but society says in particular a murder of a police officer is unacceptable.”
As police cars lined the perimeter of Harlem Park for days, residents were unable to enter their neighborhoods without showing IDs. Some complained about helicopters flying above their homes, flashing lights from police cars, and being subject to harassment and pat-down searches. Non-residents were barred from entering. On social media, many called to #FreeWestBaltimore.
On Sunday, while the cordon was still in effect, David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, released a statement raising constitutional concerns regarding the police department’s actions. “While the search for a killer is, of course, a high priority for the police, the limits on lawful police behavior do not disappear even when engaged in that pursuit,” said Rocah. “The residents of Baltimore, and, in particular, the residents of the affected community, deserve a clear explanation from the City as to why this unprecedented action has been taken, what rules are being enforced, and why it is lawful. The need to secure a crime scene from contamination to preserve evidence does not, on its face, explain the wide area to which access has been restricted for days after the incident.”
Six days after the murder, The Baltimore Sun reported that the city was entering “uncharted territory” for the police department, which usually apprehends police killers shortly after the fact. The longest it’s taken Baltimore police to do so over the last five decades was five days, in 1985. In that instance, the suspect had fled to Oklahoma.
Within hours of the murder, though, residents of Baltimore started to wonder if the police search, by looking for a member of the community, may be too narrow. The no-snitching mantra mythologized in pop culture would be unlikely to hold back informants with more than $200,000 on the line, noted community organizer Ralikh Hayes on Monday in an Intercept interview. Hayes has long been a fixture in all sorts of Baltimore activism – focusing on policing, housing, worker rights, and building black political power.
“If it was a citizen who did this, it would have already been over by now with that high of a reward,” Hayes said Monday, suggesting community members would have come forward to exchange information for the payout. “You have to think about it, that kind of money is the kind that could change someone’s entire life and citizens like us have never had access to that kind of money.”
The rumor that had been circulating through the neighborhood was that Suiter was preparing to testify against some of the seven officers indicted for racketeering charges in March. An eighth was indicted in August and a ninth last week. (The charges were filed by former U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, a month before he was named Deputy Attorney General in Trump’s Department of Justice. It was there he would have his moment in the historic sun. After Trump blamed him for firing FBI Director James Comey, he appointed special counsel Robert Mueller.)
A spokesperson for the current U.S. Attorney for Maryland told The Intercept on Monday that they could not comment on whether or not Suiter was planning on testifying in their case. But on Wednesday evening, Commissioner Davis confirmed that Suiter was in fact set to testify before a grand jury that Thursday, a day after he was shot. He also said that Suiter appeared to have been killed by his own weapon after a struggle.
Earlier this week, before that news broke, the Intercept asked TJ Smith, the Baltimore police spokesperson, whether the BPD was investigating the possibility that Suiter’s killer was within the police department or if it’s clear at this stage if it was a civilian shooter. Police had already confirmed that Suiter was placed into a police car to head to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, though who was driving the car was not made public. That police vehicle reportedly crashed into another cop car on the way to the hospital, and Suiter was then transferred into an ambulance for the rest of the trip.
Smith responded that they are “looking for a suspect in the community.” When asked for further confirmation if the murder investigation included any non-civilian suspects he referred to a link of Monday’s press conference.
During that press conference a reporter asked Commissioner Davis if the backup detective with Suiter that day personally observed the suspicious activity or if he was acting on observations from Suiter.
“That’s something I am not gonna comment on,” replied Davis. “The backup partner, who’s also a homicide detective, we’re not identifying him, he’s considered a witness in this case, and I’m not gonna comment on what role or what observations or what he did at this point in time.”
The Intercept reached back out to Hayes, the community organizer, following the news that Suiter had been set to testify against the indicted officers.
“It’s at the point where it’s no longer in the realm of conspiracy theory,” he said. “There’s still details we don’t know, and frankly this is just what the police is willing to give us—what they thought would pacify us—but what is it they still haven’t told us?”
Few in the community were startled, Hayes argued. “We’re not surprised at this level of corruption,” he said. “It requires us to reexamine what public safety is and what do we do now, because obviously DOJ mandates aren’t enough.”
Baltimore, indeed, has already been under intense scrutiny for its unconstitutional police practices. In 2016, the Department of Justice released a searing report finding that the department engaged in a number of systemically racist practices, leading ultimately to a court-ordered consent decree.
When cities enter into consent decrees for police reform, courts appoint what’s known as an “independent monitor” to oversee the legal agreement. The monitor is charged with assessing and reporting how well the terms of the decree are being carried out.
Last month a federal judge appointed Kenneth Thompson, a Baltimore-based attorney, to serve as the independent monitor. Civil rights advocates and local police brutality activists raised concerns with the number of current and former law enforcement officials slated to be on Thompson’s monitoring team — nine out of 22 members. Seattle’s consent decree monitoring team, by contrast, has one law enforcement official out of a team of 12. Cleveland’s team has five former law enforcement officers out of a team of 21.
On Saturday evening, Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University, criticized Thompson’s team for being absent as Harlem Park residents dealt with what many felt to be unconstitutional policing.
In an email to The Intercept, Brown called the Thompson team’s commitment to monitoring a sham. “They were nowhere to be seen, and we can see over the next few days if they’ll even make a statement or try to make amends for their absence or neglect. But I doubt it.”
Both Thompson and the Department of Justice did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment. Thompson’s team has about 45 days left to establish its first-year police reform implementation plan. A Baltimore official told The Intercept that Thompson’s team is “very hard at work” putting together its plan, and “it’s never been contemplated at this stage that they would show up at crime scenes.”
At Monday’s press conference, Davis said he would “much rather endure some predicted criticisms from the ACLU and others about [the cordon] than endure a conversation with Detective Suiter’s wife about why we didn’t do everything we possibly could to recover evidence and identify the person who murdered her husband.” Andre Davis, the city solicitor and a former judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals defended the cordon, telling the Baltimore Sun, “There’s no more compelling need to control a crime scene than under circumstances such as these.”
In 2008, police in Washington, D.C., set up a military-style checkpoint in Trinidad, a neighborhood in the northeast part of the city, in response to spates of shootings and murders. Cops stopped people driving into the area and required them to show IDs and justify that they had a “legitimate purpose” to enter. D.C. modeled its checkpoint after a similar one established in New York City in the early 1990s, which was ruled constitutional by a federal appeals court in 1996. In 2009, a federal appeals court ruled that the Trinidad checkpoints were unconstitutional. “It cannot be gainsaid that citizens have a right to drive upon the public streets of the District of Columbia or any other city absent a constitutionally sound reason for limiting their access,” wrote the chief judge. “It is apparent that appellants’ constitutional rights are violated.” (The ACLU of Maryland did not respond to request for comment on whether it is considering legal action.)
John Bullock, a city council person who represents the district encompassing Harlem Park, told The Intercept that as of Monday afternoon, “not a whole lot” of information has been shared with him and his colleagues. “I spoke with the police on Wednesday, then again on Friday, and had communication with them [Sunday]. … They were hopeful that they would be able to close the crime scene,” he said. “I don’t know what information has been gathered at this point.”
The lockdown was lifted Monday. The funeral is scheduled for Wednesday.