Standing outside the medical examiner’s office in Baltimore one balmy Wednesday evening in July, Angela Sutton took the microphone.
“My brother was gunned down in his home May 16,” she started, pausing for a moment. “I saw my brother May 9. Mother’s Day. I did not know that would have been the last time.”
She told the small crowd gathered on the street corner about her brother, Timothy Fleming, who was killed by Baltimore Police officers after he threatened his fiancee with a knife in their Broadway East home. She told them about the man who grew up in Baltimore and worked as a roofer, who had nicknames for everyone, and loved a cold beer after a long day.
Sutton, who said she was shocked by her brother’s outburst that day and distressed by the police response, called for the release of Fleming’s autopsy report and the police investigative files, in hopes that they’d provide some answers.
City and police officials have defended the officers’ response, pointing out that they tried to de-escalate the situation and quickly released body-worn camera footage of the incident.
Sutton drove from her home in North Carolina for the protest that July day. She stood beside Tawanda Jones, who’s been fighting police violence since the death of her brother, Tyrone West, in Baltimore police custody in 2013.
The pair forged a bond in the weeks since Fleming’s death, united by their brothers’ cases, said Jones, who has held weekly protests in her brother’s honor — dubbed West Wednesdays— for the past eight years.
“It breaks my heart when I talk to a sister, and she tells me, ‘Oh, I maybe only got two hours of sleep. My world’s been in shambles since it happened,’” she said. “I know I am that sister.”
Together, they issued the rallying cry that all killings by police are worthy of scrutiny.
“It doesn’t matter even if he was armed,” Jones said. “They’re not the judge, jury and executioner.”
The police officers called to Fleming’s home that morning in May faced a difficult situation. When they arrived, a boy told them Fleming was carrying a knife and threatening his mother — and he’d done the same thing the day before.
Inside, they found the 49-year-old standing in the door frame of his upstairs bathroom, holding a knife by his side and hovering over his fiancee, Shannon Burnham, who had fallen to the floor. His legs trapped her on either side, blocking her escape.
For about two minutes, they pleaded with Fleming to drop his knife, or at least let Burnham go. He hardly spoke, except to ask the police to leave. But then, he lunged toward Burnham with the knife in hand.
That’s when the officers fired at least eight shots, and he crumpled to the floor. Burnham wasn’t injured, but said the police response has scarred her and her family — including her young sons, one of whom is autistic and was in an adjacent room when Fleming was shot.
“I feel like they could have did it, like I said, a different way,” Burnham said in an interview. “They didn’t have to shoot him up like that.”
Experts say Fleming’s death is hardly a clear-cut case of police abuse, given he was armed and threatening someone else. But his family still is struggling with losing their loved one suddenly, and at the hands of the very officials they called to help defuse a distressing situation.
Both Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner have voiced support of officers’ actions in Fleming’s case, and the officers’ body camera footage was released a few days after his killing.
Still family members say they’re plagued by painful questions. They don’t understand why Fleming attacked that day, but they also wonder: Couldn’t police have tried to use Tasers to subdue him? Why did they need to fire their guns multiple times? And why hasn’t the medical examiner’s office released the autopsy report?
Bruce Goldfarb, spokesman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, said Fleming’s autopsy was completed but that the office doesn’t discuss “cases that are under investigation.”
The city’s civilian review board opened an investigation into the case at a complainant’s request.
Burnham, who met Fleming more than a decade ago at a drug-treatment program, had been living with him for the better part of 14 years. Never before had he lashed out as he did that Sunday morning, she said. As scared as she was that day, she said, she didn’t believe Fleming would take her life — and she didn’t want to lose him.
Burnham’s is a complex grief, stained by Fleming’s fraught final hours, but devastating all the same. The home she shares with their two children, once a haven, feels haunted. She still thinks about how the police bullets could have hit her instead.
“There’s four holes in the bedroom door up there,” Burnham said. “I still go up there every Sunday morning and cry.”
Walking up the steps of Calvin B. Scruggs Funeral Home in Oliver toward her brother’s viewing in June, Sutton carried a single can of beer.
She wanted her brother to be buried alongside his favorite guilty pleasure — a tall Bud Ice.
“You never think that you will be the one that says, ‘The police killed my brother,’” she said. “I joined the military in 1995. I served this country for 20 years. And just to have to deal with something like this. It’s horrible. It’s really hard.”
Sutton, who lives in Middlesex, North Carolina, made it to Baltimore in time to watch the body camera footage of Fleming’s death alongside the police commissioner, before it was released to the public.
“Two minutes and twenty seconds,” she said. “That’s all it took for them to kill my brother.”
At the news conference that followed, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison stood by the tactics used by officers Gaston Melendez and Jason Zimmerman to attempt to de-escalate the situation.
In the video, they can be heard begging Fleming to keep things peaceful.
“Please, just talk to us. We don’t want to hurt anybody,” Melendez says.
But, moments later, Fleming appears to move toward Burnham with the knife, and the officers fire.
“I believe they used their training and de-escalation techniques the best that they could,” Harrison said. “I don’t know that this could have gone any other way.”
But to Fleming’s family members, grieving tremendous loss, the other ways that day could have ended are difficult to put out of mind.
“The first tactic to be used on Black men these days — and women — are to just shoot,” said Shawntae Gorham, another sister of Fleming’s.
Delores Jones-Brown, a professor of law, police science and criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the officers used great restraint in a challenging situation.
“He’s threatening another human being with the knife, and he is in close proximity to her,” Jones-Brown said. “If the police hadn’t reacted immediately, she was at risk of being seriously injured.”
But police knew before they entered he was carrying a knife, not a gun. And if either or both of the two officers carried Tasers, they could have tried to use those instead, Jones-Brown said.
“It certainly seems like the kind of situation that the Taser use would be necessary, because it’s a domestic situation, so these are family members. This is no stranger danger,” Jones-Brown said. “And so, you would expect that the family wants to preserve the life of this person, even though in this moment he’s attacking.”
Still, a Taser shock might not have been enough to stop Fleming as he moved toward Burnham, Jones-Brown said. Similarly, once officers started firing, they had to fire multiple rounds, since they would not know how many bullets were finding their target, Jones-Brown said.
The Baltimore police department did not respond to questions about whether the two officers carried Tasers. Mental health professionals were not called to the scene, said police spokesman Donny Moses.
It’s difficult to say, based on the body camera footage, whether Fleming was suffering from a mental health crisis, said Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president of policy and communications for Behavioral Health System Baltimore.
A new program to divert certain 911 calls in Baltimore’s Central District to behavioral health professionals wouldn’t have caught the call from Fleming’s family, Breidenstine said. That program is likely to focus on individuals threatening suicide, she said.
And even if a clinician responded to Fleming’s home that day, she said, they likely would have needed to do so alongside an armed officer anyway, since Fleming was carrying a weapon.
The months before Fleming’s death were challenging, Burnham said.
Fleming, who worked as a roofer, saw many of his jobs disappear during the pandemic. For months, the family struggled to muster enough money to pay rent, and fell behind, Burnham said.
Family members, including Gorham, started to notice something was amiss with Fleming. A few nights before he was killed, Fleming paid her a surprise visit. Sitting on her couch watching television, the two got to talking before he fell asleep.
“He just kept saying ‘I love you, Sis,’” Gorham said. “I said: ‘I love you too. What’s wrong?’ He just kept saying ‘Nothing. I love you.’”
Back home the next night, Fleming threatened Burnham with a knife for the first time, she said. He yelled that she had let someone into their home to harm him, when she hadn’t.
It took Burnham and Fleming’s mother, who lives with them, about an hour to talk him down.
The next morning, Burnham was preparing to leave the home, readying herself before the bathroom mirror, when Fleming tackled her and pulled out the knife again. Shortly thereafter, one of her sons called the police, she said.
Now, with the help of a social worker, the family is looking for a new place to live — one free of the traumatizing memories of that Sunday in May. But finding an affordable rental has been challenging, Burnham said. In the weeks after the shooting, their landlord granted them a brief reprieve on rent payments, Burnham said.
The family raised funds through GoFundMe to hold a funeral service for Fleming in June at the Triumph Christian Church in Broadway East.
As ministers belted out gospel songs, Fleming’s casket lay closed before the altar.
As the service drew to a close, Gorham approached the funeral director. She wondered: Could he open the casket one last time? Gorham, too distressed the day of the viewing, hadn’t seen her brother’s body.
So up came the lid of the light gray casket, the bouquet of white roses pushed aside. And there lay Fleming, a Ravens cap atop his head.
At last, Gorham said goodbye.
“I needed to lay my eyes on him again,” she said. “It can’t be the last time I saw him was on my sofa before he went to sleep.”