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Family of man who died in custody asks witnesses to speak out

Family members of a man who died in police custody last week in Northeast Baltimore made emotional pleas Tuesday at a candlelight vigil for witnesses to come forward with what they saw.

Gathered on the corner of Kitmore Road and Kelway Road, where Tyrone West, 44, was arrested Thursday night before being pronounced dead at a hospital, the family was joined by members of Baltimore's activist community, who accused police of "murder" and racial profiling. Police commanders have said West was pulled over in a traffic stop and resisted arrest, scuffling with police before having a medical emergency shortly after being taken into custody.

West's family has hired attorney A. Dwight Pettit, who could be seen at the vigil along with a member of his office speaking with witnesses who have previously said officers used excessive force on West and that he was unable to fight back.

West's family said he was making good with his life after being released last summer from prison, where he served time for a 2000 drug distribution conviction and second-degree assault. They said he went to church every Sunday, and held up drawings that West had made to demonstrate his artistic talent.

"They took my father away from me," NaShay West, his daughter, said through tears. She just had a baby that West never got to see, she said. "I can't tell you how I feel today."

Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the rally, and have previously declined to comment on their investigation of the incident.

Baltimore police union president Bob Cherry said in an interview that charges of racism are unfair and that "the greatest threat to young black men in Baltimore City is other young black men."

Cherry said that based on the information he's heard so far, he feels the officers involved "acted accordingly and according to the training they received."

"Let's not use the rally today or the conversation that may occur with police in-custody deaths or police-involved shootings to deter us from what we need to do to keep this city safe," Cherry said.

At the rally, Diane Butler, an aunt of West's who raised him after his mother died, sobbed in the center of a group of her family members before ultimately feeling ill, and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance from the rally.

"It's still a cloud," said Neil Norris, a cousin of West's who said he has not had time to grieve yet as he tries to stay strong for other family members. "We don't know what happened."

West's death is the second in Baltimore police custody since last fall, when Anthony Anderson, 47, died after being thrown to the ground during a drug arrest. While the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, prosecutors said police had followed procedures. Organizers of the rally said Anderson's family members were going to attend but that they were ultimately unable to make it.

Multiple witnesses have said West was pulled from the car by his dreadlocks after being stopped, then was struck by police and sprayed with pepper spray or mace. He then tried to run into an alley, witnesses said, but police caught up with him, kicking him and hitting him with batons, with officers arriving for backup joining in.

City Councilman Bill Henry has said police told him the officers who pulled West over suspected he had drugs in a bulge in his sock, and that West tried to punch an officer and run away before he was brought under control. Police have officially released few details but maintain that West resisted arrest.

Baltimore police have identified eight officers under investigation in the incident, in addition to a Morgan State University officer who responded to distress calls.

Damion and Andrea Kennedy, local residents who said they came outside after West was already on the ground being given CPR, said they believed the incident should have been caught on cameras from the dashboards of police cruisers and from a police helicopter. So far, no video of the incident has surfaced publicly.

Pettit, the family's attorney, said he's handled more than two dozen alleged police brutality cases and expressed frustration that officers "feel no repercussions" after such incidents. He said he hoped this case would end differently.

cwells@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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