Body-camera footage from the Baltimore police shutdown of Harlem Park during the investigation into the fatal shooting of Detective Sean Suiter in November shows officers discussing running the names of residents coming and going from homes through criminal databases.
“I’ve just been writing their f—ing contacts and f—ing running them real quick,” one officer says to another during a conversation captured in footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request. “I’ve just been giving them contacts and running them through PocketCop.”
The PocketCop application, which runs on mobile devices, allows officers to run names and other personal information through motor vehicle, criminal and other law enforcement databases, so they can look for outstanding warrants, mug shots and criminal records.
The second officer says he hadn’t been “running” names “exactly,” but was collecting them per instructions he’d been given about how to handle stops of residents moving through the area.
“Maybe it goes to the warrant task force, they run them later, and they come back out here, you know what I'm saying?” he says.
Officers stopped a large number of residents and passersby in the neighborhood in the days following Suiter’s death, giving them “contact receipts” after taking their information. At the time, police said the cordoning off of major sections of the neighborhood was intended to protect residents and preserve the crime scene where Suiter was shot.
But civil liberties advocates decried the stops as unconstitutional.
David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said running the names of residents through criminal databases, after stopping them under the pretense of providing them a “contact slip,” represented yet another violation of the residents’ rights and a serious breach of trust.
“Just because a police officer died does not mean that the Fourth Amendment got thrown out the window,” said Rocah, referring to the constitutional protections for citizens against unreasonable searches, particularly without probable cause.
T.J. Smith, a Police Department spokesman, declined to answer questions this week about whether officers were instructed to run the names of residents against criminal databases, or whether such actions, if taken, were justifiable or led to any arrests.
Smith said the department was withholding all comment on body-camera footage from the Suiter investigation until the conclusion of an independent review of the case being conducted by a contracted panel of experts.
The work of the Independent Review Board, which is investigating the shooting and the police department’s response to it, is expected to take months.
Suiter, a well-liked homicide detective, husband and father, was found fatally shot in the head in a vacant lot in mid-November. At the time, police believed Suiter was killed in a brief but violent attack, though they have since acknowledged a lack of consensus among investigators — some of whom believe Suiter may have committed suicide.
The new video was part of a second release of footage this week under a standing request by The Sun for body-camera footage from the department’s days-long shutdown of Harlem Park. Other videos released last month showed residents living under close police watch and being forced to provide identification to get to their homes.
During the shutdown, police asked for residents’ cooperation and patience. In multiple body-camera videos obtained by The Sun, officers reassure residents that they were only collecting their information to document the stop, and so the resident would not have to go through the process again the next time they walked down the street.
Rocah said the first set of videos released to The Sun and the ACLU under separate requests last month showed “the people of Harlem Park living in a police state where walking out of their house subjects them to a warrantless stop by a police officer asking them for ID.”
Rocah said the latest video suggests officers in the neighborhood were “not telling the truth” when they repeatedly told residents during other stops that the department would not be running their names.
Rocah said it led him to believe that police “were collecting the names of everybody in the neighborhood in order to be able to run all those names later back at the station,” while “at least some officers were also just running the names right there” on the scene.
It showed “the repeated assertion by the BPD that all they were doing was securing a crime scene is a total fiction,” Rocah said. “The fact that they were doing this for evidence gathering purposes, which is now confirmed on tape, further reinforces the illegality of the entire enterprise.”
Rocah said the police department should not wait for the conclusion of the review board’s investigation to address how they used the information collected from Harlem Park residents.
“The idea that they need the IRB to provide explanations or justify their actions is farcical,” he said. “The IRB is not supposed to explain or justify what the Baltimore Police are doing, that’s the Baltimore Police’s job.”
Ken Thompson, the independent monitor of the city’s compliance with its consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, said his office also has been reviewing documents, interviewing police supervisors and evaluating body-camera footage from the Harlem Park operation to assess compliance with provisions of the federal police reform agreement, and plans to include the findings in its first semi-annual report, which is due in U.S. District Court on July 18.