An independent panel created to review last year's in-custody death of Tyrone West determined that Baltimore police officers did not use excessive force but made tactical errors that "potentially aggravated the situation" and did not follow basic policies.
West, 44, died on July 18, 2013, after police and witnesses said he fought with officers after being pulled over while driving through Northeast Baltimore. West's family has maintained that, based on accounts from witnesses, he was beaten to death by the officers, though an autopsy determined he died because of a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle with police and the summer heat.
James "Chips" Stewart, a Virginia-based law enforcement consultant who led the review, said at news conference Friday that officers were justified in making the initial traffic stop after observing what they believed to be suspicious activity.
"I think it was necessary to make the stop, but there were several errors made subsequent to that," Stewart said.
The report said the officers, who were driving in an unmarked vehicle, failed to call for backup or for a uniformed officer, failed to pat down West and his passenger, and did not notify their dispatcher of the location and reason for the stop. That would have revealed that West had a "long history of resisting authority, violence, and drug sales," the report said. West was on parole at the time.
Those departures from policy, among others, "contributed to the deterioration of the car stop from a controlled situation into a chaotic one that escalated into dangerous chaos and increased the risk to officer safety," the report said.
The officers involved were cleared of criminal wrongdoing last year.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts called the report "open and honest" and said it would help the department with its "continuing journey towards reform." At the news conference, he and other top officials highlighted recommendations they say are being implemented.
"We're changing and adapting the organization," Batts said. "We're shifting the culture within this organization, and it takes time to shift culture."
The panel's report criticized police training and supervision, and found that there are a "continuing number of critical incidents that seem to reveal lapses in tactical decision-making … departures from BPD policies and lack of respect for both youth and adults who are stopped by the police." But panel members agreed that the department is taking steps to address the problems.
"Overall, the Baltimore Police Department is working to improve the quality of the use of force and in-custody death investigations," said Stewart. "However, more work needs to be done to improve community trust following a controversial use of force incident."
The West family filed a lawsuit in June, and they have been regularly attending police events and holding weekly protests.
Relatives said they had not seen the report, which chided police for not communicating well with West's family. An uncle sat in the lobby of police headquarters as police held a news conference on the fifth floor, while West's sister Tawanda Jones said police were continuing to exacerbate the situation by not talking with them.
"How are you not going to tell my family?" Jones said. "I'm just totally disappointed. It's another smack in the face."
The panel, which did not interview the eight officers involved but had access to all reports gathered by police investigators, drew its findings on the question of excessive force from the autopsy report. Stewart said the officers "did not employ force beyond that which was necessary and reasonable to subdue an unusually strong and well-muscled suspect who was resisting lawful arrest."
The report faulted the homicide investigation, saying the detectives failed to note where a bag of cocaine was recovered from and that it was not tested for West's fingerprints. Crime scene photos were not cataloged, and the investigation report was "dominated" by discussion of West's criminal past while not exploring the history of the officers involved.
A failure to disclose information or give updates "worsened the family's discontent with the entire process," and the panel called for police to be more transparent and "improve the manner in which they inform the community as to what happened."
"The public's right to know and the need to build community trust are overriding factors," the panel wrote.
Police officials did not discuss specifics of the report, but emphasized improvements they say are being made. They noted that a new training director was recently hired, who is undertaking an overhaul of department policies, and reiterated that a "use of force" board has been created to review high-profile incidents.
The agency has also created a "Force Investigation Team," which replaced the homicide unit as the primary investigators of high-profile cases that involve use of force by officers. And the agency has created a page on its website where it lists those cases being investigated by the team. Eventually, officials said, they will post final reports of such incidents, though none has been posted.
"We talk about reform and the heavy lifting it takes. This is it," said Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez.
The status of the officers involved remains unclear. Michael E. Davey, who represents the officers and a Morgan State University campus police officer who was also involved, said no official finding had been handed down from internal affairs. "They may be waiting for this [report]," he said. Davey, who had not seen the report Friday, criticized the outside reviews as overkill.
The panel was the second convened by Batts to review a high-profile in-custody death. A panel that reviewed the death of Anthony Anderson, whose findings were presented in December 2013, found no evidence that circumstances surrounding Anderson's death amounted to a crime, but made some recommendations for how police can better track their use of force. Anderson had been thrown to the ground during a drug arrest, causing his spleen to rupture.
Stewart, a former director for the National Institute of Justice, was not involved in that review but led an earlier panel that reviewed the friendly fire shooting death of Officer William Torbit in 2011.
Stewart said the department agreed to post an update in six months on its progress implementing suggestions from the report.
"They did exactly what we asked them to do, which is be transparent and help us change," Batts said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun