Four residents of Harlem Park neighborhood filed a federal court lawsuit against the Baltimore City Police Department, saying police violated their rights.
Four Harlem Park residents caught up in a Baltimore Police frenzy in the days after detective Sean Suiter was shot in the head have filed a federal lawsuit, saying police violated their constitutional rights in a failed attempt to catch a cop killer.
Suiter was found bleeding in a vacant lot in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood in November 2017 as he and his partner searched for a murder suspect. His death prompted an extraordinary police response — including cordoning off several blocks of the neighborhood for six days — that has been criticized by civil rights groups and a federal team overseeing court-ordered reforms in the department.
Residents in white neighborhoods would not have been treated the same, said David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, which is representing the residents in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court Monday.
“What happened in Harlem Park was a dramatic and crystal clear example of the many ways in which policing in Baltimore is not the same in black and white communities," Rocah said. "It is not enough for for the city to say long after the fact... oops we messed up, our bad.”
Officers stationed around the crime scene’s perimeter stopped residents, asked them for identification, and ran their names through law enforcement databases. Body worn camera footage from officers stationed in the neighborhood showed them stopping everyone entering the neighborhood. Residents had to show identification just to get home.
“I really felt like I was in jail. I didn’t feel like I should have to show my ID every time I come to my own neighborhood," said Nicole Lee, one of the four plaintiffs, in a statement. "Family couldn’t come over. My son couldn’t come home from school — it was just too much going on.”
While the department is permitted to close off areas as part of a crime scene, Rocah said the police went far beyond what was necessary, both in the size and the length of time that the streets were cordoned off. Rocah noted that the officers’ actions in Harlem Park came from the department’s highest levels of leadership.
“What was created in Harlem Park was a police state, not a crime scene," the ACLU’s Rocah said.
Baltimore City Police dispatch scanner audio following shooting of Det. Sean Suiter on Nov. 15. (Audio courtesy of the Baltimore Police Department via Broadcastify, video courtesy of ScannerAudio)
City Solicitor Andre Davis, whose office must represent the department said, “I can only say we will provide the usual vigorous representation to our clients that we try to provide in every case.”
Davis said shortly after Suiter’s death that he felt there weren’t legal concerns with the department’s response. But following a scathing report by the consent decree monitoring team that found officers violated citizens’ rights, Davis acknowledged “there’s no question we got a number of things wrong.”
“BPD’s response to the Suiter shooting demonstrates the considerable long-term challenge it faces to ensure that its officers abide by the Constitution and the Consent Decree in their interactions with community members,” the monitoring team wrote in a report in June 2018.
The monitor’s report said the department unnecessarily closed off a large area around the crime scene well past any time in which an armed and dangerous suspect still would pose a threat. It also concluded that officers conducted warrant checks without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, and frisked nine people unlawfully.
At a Monday afternoon news conference in Harlem Park, Juaqueta Bullock, one of the plaintiffs, described how she came home with her 8-year-old daughter only to have to wait outside the police perimeter for nearly two hours, though police reportedly were looking for a male suspect. For days after, she repeatedly had to identify herself to officers whenever she returned home.
“Officers kept asking, ‘show your I.D., show your I.D., show your I.D.’” Bullock said. “I am just walking in my door. I shouldn’t have to keep showing my I.D.”
Lauren Holmes, another plaintiff said the experience worsened her perception of police, saying in a statement “it felt like martial law.”
Holmes said at the news conference that it was difficult to have to explain what was happening to her kids, “why they could not leave their home, why they could not do certain things, why this difference was that they had to be subjected to this. It was very uncomfortable, and I don’t think this is something that should take place just because you live in a certain neighborhood."
The residents’ lawsuit seeks compensation from the city, but also “a prohibition against BPD ever establishing a similar neighborhood lockdown again,” as well as "a court order requiring the BPD to destroy all of the personal information illegally obtained from residents. "