The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on Thursday requested police body camera footage from the initial, days-long investigation into Detective Sean Suiter’s fatal shooting in Harlem Park last month, saying it wants answers after receiving “many questions about the Baltimore Police Department’s unprecedented decision to cordon off entire sections” of the West Baltimore neighborhood.
Suiter, a homicide detective, was investigating a 2016 triple homicide in the neighborhood on Nov. 15 when he was shot in the head with his own gun. He died the next day. The investigation is ongoing.
Parts of the neighborhood were shut down for close to a week as police launched a massive manhunt for a suspect and scoured the neighborhood for evidence. Residents reported having to show identification before being allowed into the cordoned-off blocks, being searched and even being barred from the area.
“The public has a right to see body camera footage of police interacting with civilians during the unprecedented cordon in Harlem Park,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “The publicly stated rationale for the cordon, the need to preserve a crime scene, seems inconsistent with both the scope and duration of the cordon, and with the other police actions that were taken, such as searches, demanding identification, and barring non-residents.
“In those circumstances, there is a need for greater transparency, which is precisely why we have body cameras in the first place,” Rocah said.
The ACLU on Thursday requested all footage “recorded by officers working the perimeter of the cordon involving an interaction with a civilian;” all footage “involving police escorting civilians to or from the police cordon;” all footage “involving the first ten minutes of searches of occupied dwellings within the police cordon,” excluding footage of searches of abandoned or vacant buildings; and all footage “recorded by officers working the perimeter of the cordon showing the number of times the [camera] was activated, and the duration of the recording.”
It filed the request under the Maryland Public Information Act.
The ACLU said it expects the faces or other “identifying information” about individuals in the footage will be redacted “to hide their identity and preserve their privacy.”
The Baltimore Sun also has requested the footage.
T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said the department is reviewing the requests, and that the isolation of footage related to the Suiter case would be part of the investigation of his death.
Mayor Catherine Pugh has thanked residents of Harlem Park for their “patience” during the investigation.
The Civilian Review Board, a police oversight panel, held a hearing where residents voiced their concerns about the response to Suiter’s shooting and other problems in the neighborhood.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has acknowledged the department’s investigation was “exhaustive,” but said it was necessary to preserve the crime scene.
The department in a statement thanked the community for its “support and sensitivity” during the investigation.
“Our efforts to identify and arrest the perpetrator rely on the thoroughness of our investigation and our capacity to recover forensic, physical and other evidence,” it said.
Davis has since asked the FBI to take over the investigation amid swirling questions around Suiter’s death. Police are investigating the theory put forward by police from the beginning, that Suiter was shot by an attacker, but also other theories — including that Suiter may have shot himself.
Police also revealed that Suiter was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury the day after he was shot in an ongoing police corruption case in which it is alleged an officer planted drugs in a defendant’s car and duped an unknowing Suiter into finding them.
As of Thursday the FBI had not responded to Davis’ request that it take over the investigation.