FBI needs to take the lead on Det. Sean Suiter investigation

It has been more than two weeks since Det. Sean Suiter was killed in a violence-ridden West Baltimore neighborhood, and police have not identified, much less apprehended, a suspect. A possibly unprecedented $215,000 reward has made no difference. Meanwhile, with every passing day, new and confounding details emerge about Suiter’s role as a witness to the federal corruption case that is roiling the Baltimore Police Department. Add in some unusual details about the circumstances of his death — the radio still clutched in his left hand despite what police say was a life-and-death struggle, the lack of any surveillance video showing a possible suspect fleeing the scene — and you’ve got a recipe for skepticism, at best, and the flowering of conspiracy theories at worst.

That alone was reason for Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to heed the calls by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Councilman Brandon Scott to allow the FBI to take the lead role in the investigation. Clearly, the city police must remain involved, as they would in any murder in Baltimore, but there is little question that public trust in the process will be improved if a different agency was the face of the investigation.

The assertion by Mr. Davis that the FBI and Department of Justice know more about the case than they are sharing with city homicide detectives only thickens the plot. Do federal investigators have reason to distrust the city police? Does Mr. Davis believe they do? At the very least, Mr. Davis’ letter asking the FBI to take over the case suggests the possibility that there’s more to the story than we have been told.

Up to this point, Mr. Davis has voiced with great certitude the investigative theory that Detective Suiter walked into an alley alone to check on a suspicious person, got into a “spontaneous altercation” with a suspect, and, after a struggle, was shot in the head at close range with his own gun. He has offered repeated assurances that Detective Suiter was not a target of the federal investigation into the department’s disgraced Gun Trace Task Force, and he made additional reference to that assertion in his letter to the FBI. So far, no evidence made public suggests otherwise. But Commissioner Davis is in a difficult position. He leads a department that suffers from community mistrust based on a legacy of civil rights violations, as outlined in last year’s Department of Justice report. He is presiding over the third year in a row of more than 300 murders — the city exceeded last year’s total just a day after Detective Suiter’s funeral. And he is dealing with the fallout from a corruption scandal in the department that seems constantly to be expanding in its scope. Perhaps everything he has said about the case will turn out to be correct, but he now appears to be suggesting that might not be so.

The FBI has been involved in this case from the start; after all, Detective Suiter was a federal witness. Whether or not the FBI and DOJ really have crucial evidence that we (and the city police) have not seen, and whether or not they will solve this case faster, making the FBI the public face of this case will give the public greater assurance that its investigation is proceeding free from any potential conflicts of interest. The people of Harlem Park, which became a virtual police state for days after the killing, deserve that. The people of the Baltimore region, who have been told a cop killer is on the loose, deserve that. The grieving members of the Baltimore Police Department and especially the Homicide Division in which Suiter worked deserve it. And most of all, Detective Suiter’s family deserves it.

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