Possibility of suicide in Baltimore Det. Sean Suiter case puts some family benefits on the line

The families of Baltimore police officers who are killed in the line of duty are eligible to receive a host of benefits: lump-sum payouts from the state and federal governments, a special pension arrangement, workers’ compensation.

The value can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But if investigators conclude the officer took his or her own life, many of those benefits are reduced, or unavailable entirely.

That’s a possibility that’s been raised in the death of Det. Sean Suiter, the police veteran who was shot last month in West Baltimore. Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says investigators are not ruling out the possibility that his death was a suicide.

Suiter, a 43-year-old homicide detective, was shot in the Harlem Park neighborhood of West Baltimore on Nov. 15 as he investigated a triple homicide from 2016. He died the next day. He had been scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the police department’s corrupt gun squad.

Police say Suiter was shot with his own service weapon. They have not identified any suspects in the case. Davis has asked the FBI to take over the investigation. The agency has not responded publicly to the request.

Davis has said investigators believe the fatal shooting of Suiter followed a violent struggle with an unknown suspect.

But he said last week that suicide “is something that we’re not discounting.” He also said “there is no evidence whatsoever right now that leads us to suspect that.”

“If the evidence leads us in that direction, we’ll go there,” he said. “If the evidence leads us in the direction of a conspiracy, we’ll go there. If the evidence leads us in the direction of an unknown perpetrator who we have yet to identify, and that’s very frustrating to all of us, we’ll go there, too. So we’re not discounting anything.”

Inside the Police Department, officials are divided about where the evidence points. While some share the commissioner’s view that the case appears to be a homicide, some lean toward suicide as the most likely explanation, sources have told The Baltimore Sun. The possibility Suiter’s death was accidental also is being explored.

The medical examiner’s office has ruled the case a homicide. Dr. David Fowler, the chief medical examiner, has said he continues to gather information and meet with investigators, and that “if any other evidence comes up that we need to amend, we will do so.”

Suiter was scheduled to provide grand jury testimony about a case he worked in 2010 with then-Det. Wayne Jenkins, in which drugs were found in a man’s vehicle after a deadly high-speed chase. Federal prosecutors said in a Nov. 30 indictment that Jenkins planted the drugs and set up Suiter to find them, calling Suiter “clueless” that they had been planted.

Suiter, an 18-year veteran of the police department, leaves a wife and five children.

Among the largest benefits available to families of fallen law enforcement officers is a U.S. Justice Department program that provides a $350,000 payout and $1,000 a month in higher education tuition assistance.

But federal law says that money is unavailable if the death was caused “by such officer's intention.” The burden of proof that it wasn’t lies with the officer’s family. Findings by law enforcement agencies and the medical examiner would be considered important evidence.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has a similar program, but a spokesman couldn’t immediately say how an officer’s suicide might affect the benefit to his family.

The family of a police officer killed on the job is eligible for up to $1,000 a week in state workers’ compensation payments. How long those payments are available depends on several factors, including the surviving spouse’s marital status and whether children are enrolled in higher education.

State law bars those payments if a worker causes his or her own death, said H. Scott Curtis, a lawyer for the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission. That is similar to the provisions of most life insurance policies, which do not pay our for a suicide.

Byron B. Warnken, an attorney who handles workers’ compensation cases, said it's up to the person making a claim to the commission to prove the case.

The family of a Baltimore police officer is also eligible to receive payments from his or her department pension.

Survivors of Baltimore police officers killed in the line of duty — defined as a death that “arose out of and in the course of the actual performance of duty, without willful negligence on the part of the” officer — receive all of the officer’s pension contributions back as a lump sum, plus a regular pension payment equal to the officer’s salary at the time of death. The pension payments go to the surviving spouse until he or she dies, and then are split among any children until they turn 18, or 22 for those who are full-time students.

If a death is determined not to have happened in the line of duty, the family may opt to receive either the lump sum of his contributions and an additional amount based on his pay, or a regular pension of up to 50 percent of his salary.

Amy Baskerville, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Fire and Police Employees’ Retirement System, said she could not comment on an individual case. But in general, she said, it would be up to any survivors to put their case before a hearing officer, who would make the final determination on pension benefits.

“There’s no easy way to say” how a determination that Suiter’s death was a suicide would factor into the decision, Baskerville said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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