Baltimore police commissioner: Det. Suiter's death still an open case while detectives review report's finding of suicide

Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said the death of Sean Suiter officially remains an open case and detectives will continue to investigate as they take into account an outside panel concluding the homicide detective took his own life.

Tuggle said at a news conference Wednesday with the report’s authors that it had been shared with homicide detectives investigating the case and the medical examiner, who could revise their conclusions based on its contents.

“I accept the facts as they are presented in the report,” Tuggle said. “There is still more to be done. The report represents additional evidence.”

A spokeswoman for the medical examiner, which ruled the death a homicide, said officials would review the report.

“If a change in the manner of death is warranted, the appropriate change will be made,” spokeswoman Nikki Laska said. The review will take a few weeks, she said.

The chairs of the Independent Review Board said their investigation had turned up new evidence, including a witness and additional forensic tests. The seven-member group was unanimous in its conclusion that Suiter killed himself, they said.

James “Chips” Stewart, the chairman of the panel, said he hoped the medical examiner’s office and the police would revisit the case carefully based on the report.

“It should be treated as new evidence,” he said. “These agencies … should then use it to re-investigate to see whether these are in fact meritorious and warrants a change in their findings or classifications.”

Suiter died last November while purportedly conducting a follow-up investigation into a triple homicide. Police initially treated the case as a murder investigation, locking down the neighborhood and offering a reward that eventually reached $215,000. But the panel concluded that based on forensic evidence, witness accounts and video, there could be no other conclusion than that Suiter killed himself with his police-issued gun.

The report found that police made some missteps in the handling of the evidence but that overall the investigation was thorough.

“I’m proud of the investigators,” Tuggle said. “There’s no case study for this particular incident. It’s rare that you would ever see a homicide detective die in the line of duty and have to have that investigated by members of his or her own unit.”

The early stages of the investigation were marked by confusion after personnel at Shock Trauma made a mistake about how Suiter had been shot. The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy caught the mistake a few days later, Stewart said, and asked, “Is suicide a possibility?”

She was told by someone from the Baltimore police that it wasn’t, Stewart said.

At an earlier news conference, Mayor Catherine Pugh said she had read the report but wanted to have a chance to be briefed on it further before saying whether she accepted the conclusion that Suiter’s death was a suicide.

“I’m waiting to hear from the independent reviewers,” she said.

The report was especially critical of how then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis handled the case, saying he misled the public about Suiter’s connection to the federal Gun Trace Task Force corruption investigation.

Pugh said the Suiter case was not a factor when she decided to fire Davis in January, but said she, too, felt as though she had been misled.

“We’ve all been misled,” she said. “There is information in the report I did not get, absolutely.”

Laska said the medical examiner’s office had also been unaware of Suiter’s role in the corruption probe.

Davis this week defended his actions and said he told the detectives to follow the evidence, that suicide is possible but not probable, and that nothing has emerged to change his mind about that.

“Culturally, the BPD can’t live with the fact that there’s an unsolved murder of a cop on the books,” Davis said.

The report also stepped back and examined the Police Department’s ability to implement reforms, concluding that officials had repeatedly failed to learn from their mistakes.

James “Chip” Coldren, the panel’s co-chair, said the department had been beset by a lack of consistent leadership — there have been three police commissioners this year alone and the mayor’s staff are seeking to hire another — and that in the face of intense scrutiny in recent years the department has taken a “circling the wagons approach.”

“That insulates the department from change,” Coldren said.

Pugh said that whoever is hired to lead the department would have “full authority” to improve it.

“This Police Department has to undergo change,” she said.

But, speaking before the report was released, Councilman Brandon Scott, the chairman of the public safety committee, said the changes need to go further than a new commissioner.

He has been calling for the creation of a board of police commissioners to directly oversee the department. He said officials need to make structural changes rather than responding to each individual crisis.

“Every week there’s something new, basically, but we have to blow the structure up at minimum,” Scott said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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