By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
As the city continues to debate the findings of an Independent Review Board (IRB), that all but concluded detective Sean Suiter committed suicide in a West Baltimore alley last year, one critical decision by police in the wake of his death remains largely unexplained: why did the command staff continue to lockdown the Harlem Park neighborhood for six days when, by all accounts, the department knew there was no imminent threat?
The police department declined to comment for this article. And the IRB report cited command staff breakdown in part for the unpopular decision.
But, the lengthy occupation of the West Baltimore neighborhood–which included forcing residents to carry papers and legally questionable warrant checks–has been a point of contention in the community; a decision both contrary to the expectations of residents in the wake of a federal consent decree with the Department of Justice, which to some suggest a more nefarious motive.
“They did it because they could,” State Sen. Jill P. Carter, who is also the deputy director of the city’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement told the AFRO. “It was a way of emphasizing to an entire community they are all Dred Scott and have no rights.”
Shortly after the shooting, Carter called a meeting of the city’s Civilian Review Board (at the time she was director of the Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement) at the Metropolitan United Methodist Church in response to complaints from residents that they were under siege. During the nightlong hearing, dozens of people expressed frustration with police tactics.
Carter takes issue with the official explanation at the time that the expansive, nearly permanent crime scene was motivated by a search for an elusive Black male suspect police identified shortly after the shooting, but who never materialized. She still views the lockdown as a deliberate attempt to reassert police authority in a city that was seeking substantive reform from a department that had been seemingly resistant to change.
“They exploited the tragedy of Detective Suiter’s death to send a strong ‘police lives matter’ message and in doing so, they thumbed their noses at the consent decree and the people they are sworn to serve, “Carter said.
In fact, the lockdown earned a strong rebuke from the federal monitoring team tasked with reporting on the department’s compliance with the consent decree. The group concluded that the command staff knew within 36 hours that there was no immediate threat from the lone Black male then Commissioner Kevin Davis identified as the primary suspect in Suiter’s then alleged-murder.
Even the explanation offered by commanders that extending the crime scene was critical to preserving evidence isn’t plausible for some experienced investigators.
Former Maryland State Police narcotics chief and Baltimore police commander Neil Franklin said the idea of preserving a six-block scene for a week is hard to comprehend.
“I can see absolutely no valid reason for locking down Harlem Park as they did,” Franklin told the AFRO. “They would never have done this in Roland Park.”
Which raises the question that looms over the entire ordeal, why would police under heightened public scrutiny make such a risky decision?
It’s a question that has yet to be examined in light of one of the most damning revelations of the entire incident: then police commissioner Kevin Davis’ decision to withhold the fact that Suiter was not just a witness, but a possible suspect in the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), scandal.
The GTTF was a group of eight officers who either pleaded guilty or were convicted of robbing residents, dealing drugs, and stealing overtime. It is one of the most damaging examples of corruption to engulf the beleaguered agency accustomed to them.
But, at the time of Suiter’s shooting, the scope of the scandal was limited to crimes captured on a series of wiretaps recorded in 2016. It was Suiter’s pending testimony that could have, in part, expand the timeline well beyond the initial accusations and broaden an already damaging corruption investigation.
In fact, the case Suiter was set to testify about involved his role with GTTF ringleader Sgt. Wayne Jenkins in a 2010 robbery; an investigation, which led to charges that Jenkins planted drugs on Baltimore resident Umar Burley after he tried to evade him and caused a fatal accident.
The circumstances of the 2010 incident seems to make the findings of the IRB report, that Davis concealed both Suiter’s pending testimony and the legal jeopardy the veteran homicide detective was facing, compelling. The lone suspect from the community was the perfect narrative to paint Suiter’s death as a random act, instead of another link in the expanding GTTF scandal; which is a major reason why the community continues to be skeptical about any official explanation of Suiter’s death, or the ensuing lockdown. It is a skepticism shared by many community activists like Christopher Irvin.
“I think that it is entirely a possible scenario that the lockdown was possibly done as a ruse,” Irvin said.