Getting the whole story on Det. Sean Suiter's killing

Mayor Catherine Pugh says the editorial in the Sunday Sun about Police Commissioner Kevin Davis’ request that the FBI take the lead in the investigation of Det. Sean Suiter’s killing is inaccurate. In case you missed it, we said it is imperative for the FBI to become the public face of the investigation because the confounding nature of the case coupled with the revelation that Suiter was to be a witness in a trial related to a massive corruption scandal in the Baltimore Police was leading to public distrust of the police department’s objectivity. Mr. Davis’ assertion that FBI and Department of Justice were possibly keeping city police in the dark about aspects of the investigation only made that situation worse, we argued.

Mayor Pugh did not voice objections to any of that but rather to a sentence in which we said the development of conspiracy theories around the killing “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.” Ms. Pugh says the decision to ask the FBI to take over the case was made well before Thursday, when Messrs. Young and Scott issued their request. “Your councilmen had nothing to do with it,” she said. Commissioner Davis says the same thing.

Very well, but whether Mr. Davis made the decision on his own, whether Ms. Pugh suggested it or whether it was the Man in the Moon’s idea is entirely beside the point. The real issue here is whether the public has been getting the whole truth about what’s going on in this investigation, and the answer is clearly no.

Ms. Pugh says, and Mr. Davis confirms, that Mr. Davis wanted to wait until after Suiter’s funeral, which was Wednesday, to make his request to the FBI. After Messrs. Young and Scott issued their letter on Thursday asking the department to make the move, Ms. Pugh was dismissive of their demand, noting that the FBI had been involved in the investigation from the outset. That day, Mr. Davis did not answer questions about the matter but indicated he would have something to say the following day. That night, he drove to Pennsylvania to discuss the matter with Detective Suiter’s widow, Nicole, and he announced the request at noon the following day. As of Sunday morning, the FBI had not responded.

Mr. Davis says he has made multiple trips to visit the family since Suiter’s death, and Mayor Pugh says she is in frequent contact with Ms. Suiter by phone and text. We are glad to hear that. The Suiter family deserves to feel it is being treated with the utmost sensitivity and compassion by the mayor and police department.

But as enormous and bewildering as their loss must be, they are not the only ones with a stake in uncovering the truth about Detective Suiter’s death. From the Harlem Park residents who were subject to a virtual quarantine as police spent days combing the neighborhood for evidence to the people of the entire city who have been forced to live with the idea that a “heartless, ruthless, soulless killer” is on the loose and the police department is unable to catch him, we all deserve the truth. Delaying a formal call for the FBI to take over out of deference to the Suiter family may not have hindered the investigation itself, as the bureau and other federal agencies were already working on the case, but it did allow the public mistrust about the department’s efforts to deepen.

We understand, of course, that in a murder investigation, police cannot and should not always tell the public everything they know as soon as they know it. But what has happened here goes well beyond that. For more than two weeks, Commissioner Davis asserted that Suiter was killed by an unknown assailant after a brief, violent struggle, but on Friday, he acknowledged that the department has considered other possibilities as well, including suicide, and that the evidence doesn’t point definitively in one direction or another. Mr. Davis explained in a news conference that “having that conversation with the Suiter family” about other possible explanations for his death “before he was buried was something that I wanted to press pause on.” Motivated by kindness as Mr. Davis may have been, the fact remains that he presented as truth what he now says is just what the department considers the most probable theory.

And that’s not the only shifting part of the story. Reading from a prepared statement on Nov. 22, Commissioner Davis said he “now” knew that Detective Suiter was scheduled to testify in the corruption case the day after he was shot. On Friday, Acting U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning said he told the commissioner about it on Nov. 16, the day Suiter died. Later on Friday, Mr. Davis confirmed that and claimed that his previous comments had been misinterpreted. If so, he knew about the pending testimony for nearly a week before bringing it to the public. On Thursday, Mayor Pugh said the Young/Scott request that the city turn the Suiter case over to the FBI was unnecessary, and she criticized the councilmen for inserting themselves where they didn’t belong despite the fact that they were advocating for something she now says she had signed off on days before.

The net effect has been to badly strain the public’s credulity in the police department’s handling of the case. That’s what matters here, not who gets credit for calling in the FBI.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°