Two families who say they are linked through police brutality filed separate lawsuits against the Baltimore Police Department on Monday, alleging that two officers involved in an in-custody death should not have been on duty.
Abdul Salaam, 36, says he was beaten in July 2013 after a traffic stop by Officers Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz and that he never got a response to his complaint filed with internal affairs. Those officers would be implicated less than three weeks later in the death of 44-year-old Tyrone West while he was in police custody.
Salaam and West's relatives say they believe West would be alive had police suspended the officers pending a review of Salaam's allegations. They joined together Monday with attorney A. Dwight Pettit to announce they had filed separate multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the officers and others, alleging wrongful death, violation of civil rights and other charges.
"Only through an act of God is Mr. Salaam still here," Pettit said. "The attack on him was so brutal that he could very easily have been departed just like Mr. West."
The officers involved in West's death — Chapman, Bernardez-Ruiz, and seven others — were cleared of criminal wrongdoing. Michael Davey, an attorney whose firm represented the officers during the probe, said the continuing claims against them are unfounded. Salaam's suit also names two other officers.
"People file civil suits every day," Davey said. "Common sense tells you when you're an aggressive officer making traffic stops and arrests on a daily basis, people will make complaints. People don't like to be arrested."
Police officials did not respond to requests for comment. Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, also named as a defendant in both lawsuits, has appointed an outside review panel to look into West's death. The results of that inquiry have not been released.
Salaam, who works as a youth counselor, said he was with his 3-year-old son returning home from the grocery store on July 1 when officers drove down his alley and, with guns drawn, told him to get out of the vehicle. Salaam was thrown to the ground repeatedly and kicked and punched, his lawsuit claims.
"I was basically beaten within inches of my life over a seat belt," Salaam said.
Court records show Salaam was cited for failing to stop, talking on a cellphone and failing to restrain a child with a safety belt, and arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Prosecutors dropped all charges in October.
Seventeen days later, in the same neighborhood of New Northwood, West, 44, was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation. According to police and a woman who had been riding in West's vehicle, he tried to escape and fought with officers. The state medical examiner ruled that West died because of a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle with police and the summer heat, but other witnesses said West was beaten excessively.
His family has been holding regular protests since his death, which they call "West Wednesdays." Salaam drove by one of the protests and stopped, and they realized the common ties.
"We knew it was a divine intervention," Salaam said.