As friends and family members continued to grapple with a Baltimore Police shooting on Thursday afternoon that left a 17-year-old critically wounded, some onlookers pushed back against a phrase police used to explain the initial interaction with him.
The officer, who has not been identified by Baltimore Police except that he was a member of one of the department’s specialized District Action Team units, had approached the teen because he believed he was “displaying characteristics of an armed person,” according to Deputy Commissioner Rich Worley.
Pressed for specifics, Worley said he couldn’t say what the officer saw, but said it was the reason for his approach.
The explanation may be familiar to those close to the criminal justice system — and the experience familiar for residents living in some neighborhoods in Baltimore.
In court, officers often swear that a bulge in someone’s clothing or constant tugging at their waistband are telltales of carrying a firearm. On the street, officers’ questions can sound more like harassment to residents.
Daquan Young, 19, a friend of the shooting victim, said nonuniformed officers in a Nissan truck frequently pass through Southwest Baltimore’s Shipley Hill neighborhood, asking him if he knows anyone with guns.
“They tell me that all the time: ‘You look like you might have a gun on you,’” Young said, before grabbing him and searching him. “They come and bother us every day.”
To defense attorney Natalie Finegar, the phrase Worley used is police terminology created to justify stopping people on a “hunch,” which is not otherwise legal, and a method with questionable legitimacy, given she doesn’t believe the department tracks how often officers are mistaken.
”We’re relying on these officers’ testimony in court that they’re getting it right all the time, and it’s a very nebulous area,” Finegar told The Baltimore Sun. “Basically, you’re saying ‘somebody’s holding their arm funny,’ ‘somebody’s walking funny’ — but you don’t even know necessarily if that person has some sort of physical disability.”
Baltimore Police on Friday declined to answer questions from The Sun, including what characteristics of an armed person are and whether the department evaluates how often officers are incorrect in their suspicions. Police also would not say whether the 17-year-old has been charged with a crime.
The department, instead, said in a statement that the agency’s Special Investigations Response Team was continuing to investigate the incident and that the department had “activated” its policy around the release of critical incident recordings. That policy allows for the release of audio and video recordings so long as it doesn’t jeopardize ongoing investigations.
James Bentley, a spokesman for the Baltimore state’s attorney, said the office was investigating the shooting, but declined to answer additional questions citing the ongoing investigation. He declined to say whether there was an investigation into the teen’s conduct because he is under age 18.
Police said on Thursday the 17-year-old ran from officers through several alleys after the initial approach by police and didn’t follow “numerous” orders to drop a weapon, which they said was a handgun with an extended magazine. Worley declined to say whether the teen had pointed a gun at the officer, saying there was “a lot of body-worn camera footage to look at.”
“We just know he was running with the weapon and he basically ignored several commands to drop the weapon,” Worley said.
Young and another eyewitness told The Sun they didn’t see him holding a gun while he was running. Devon Smith, the second witness, said he never heard police tell the teen to drop a weapon.
Both said the teen was shot in the back, which police haven’t confirmed.
The 17-year-old’s mother, Kieria Franklin, said Friday morning that her son was still in critical condition but that he had made it out of surgery, where his left kidney and spleen were removed. She said doctors told her he had been shot by bullets that entered from the back and front of his body.
Young, the teen’s friend, described seeing the officer who shot the 17-year-old sitting down next to the teen for 10 minutes before the teen got up and walked away, leading to the chase. Sparse details provided at the police press conference didn’t include a similar description of their interaction.
“If you felt like he had something, you could’ve grabbed it then and there,” Young said.
He added that an officer had approached him on Wednesday and called him names, telling him he needed to lose weight.
“They just harass us,” Young said. “They’re trying to test to see if somebody got a gun.”
Others in Shipley Hill on Friday voiced dismay at Thursday afternoon’s events. Jeffrey McKoy, 60, who rents homes on Lombard street to longtime residents, said a 17-year-old is “still a child, no ifs, ands or buts about it.” Christopher Smith, 27, too, expressed concern that “these police are not for the people.”
“What if someone did that to his child?” Smith said, referring to the police officer who shot the teen. “How would he feel?”
Jamie Branch, the teen’s aunt, said officers often are “jumping out” at her nephew and others in the neighborhood. “I’m not saying my nephew is an angel, but he didn’t deserve to get shot.”
Finegar, the defense attorney, said she’s worried that concern about persistent gun violence in Baltimore influences legal analyses of whether police violated someone’s constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
Calling it an area “fraught for abuse,” Finegar compared the phenomenon to the “war on drugs” in the early ‘90s.
“It was kind of like, ‘this is so dangerous and we have to have these drugs removed from the streets.’ It’s the same thing here,” she said. “We have to be careful not to let the tail wag the dog.”
“In other words, yes, guns are an epidemic, and it’s a huge problem. But do we solve that by loosening everybody’s Fourth Amendment rights?”
Courts in Maryland and beyond have repeatedly held that officers are justified to stop people and frisk them based on their observation of “characteristics of an armed person.” The courts, however, have required officers to be specific about their observations, rather than simply noting a bulge in someone’s clothing or a person adjusting their waistband repeatedly.
The U.S. Justice Department found in 2016 that Baltimore Police had a practice of unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, including taking the actions disproportionately against African American residents and without reasonable suspicion and probable cause.
Baltimore Police policy now says officers can conduct an investigative stop when they have “reasonable articulable suspicion” the person “is committing, is about to commit, or has committed a crime.” That suspicion, it adds, must be based on more than the physical characteristics of a person. Those characteristics must be combined with a “specific, non-general description matching the suspect or the observed behaviors of the person,” the policy says.
An officer can’t stop someone solely because they’re in an area known for criminal activity or solely based on their response to police. But they can if a person is in a high-crime area, if they run from police unprovoked and there’s “articulable reason” to believe they’re running because they’re involved in that area’s crime, policy says.
Clyde Boatwright, president of the Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police, said some of the characteristics of an armed person that police might be taught to look for include favoring one side of their body, not moving their arm as they walk or having a bulge in their pocket.
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Being proactive, he said, can mean focusing on illegal handguns in neighborhoods experiencing an increase in violence.
“Anyone can be stopped by the police if there’s suspicion of a crime,” Boatwright said. “If you’re not engaged in any unlawful behavior and you’re in a community that has experienced violence, and you see the police officers are being proactive, that should be welcome.”
Defense attorney Warren Brown has represented many clients accused of illegally carrying a gun.
”Some of them I find to be legitimate, because these guns are kind of heavy and they’re not in a holster,” Brown said. “I think their normal gait is interrupted by their constantly readjusting so that the gun doesn’t fall down their leg or anything like that.”
Like Finegar, Brown is concerned about the lack of metrics on police justifying stops because they believe someone is armed. At the same time, he said, it’s not rocket science recognizing someone who is carrying a gun.
”Let’s face it, man, there are a lot of damn guns out there,” Brown said. “So [police] get a lot of experience watching.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Tony Roberts contributed to this article.