Consent decree report criticizes police response in Harlem Park following fatal shooting of Detective Suiter

The Baltimore Police Department’s response in Harlem Park following the fatal shooting of Detective Sean Suiter in 2017 raises “clear constitutional concerns,” the monitoring team overseeing the consent decree has found, citing improper stops and searches of residents.

“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 submitted to the court Wednesday.

The monitor’s first semiannual report details the efforts made in enacting sweeping police reforms since the federal mandate was approved last year. The consent decree was the result of a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory police practices in the city.

The report said the police department has so far met the deadlines outlined by the monitoring plan, and that the department’s work “has been respectable and has demonstrated a genuine commitment to reform.” But the monitoring team expressed concerns about reaching future benchmarks in the years-long plan, and emphasized the extensive work that lies ahead.

In addition to the department’s response to the Suiter shooting, the 99-page report highlights a number of challenges, including “organizational deficiencies” of the unit that investigates officer misconduct, and vastly outdated technology.

The report comes a week before a second public hearing with U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, the monitoring team, and city, police and Department of Justice officials. The monitoring team also is hosting a public meeting to hear from residents from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, 600 S. Conkling Street.

Much of the work in the consent decree’s first year involves the review and revision of numerous police department policies. But the monitoring team also reviewed the department’s conduct as it established and enforced a perimeter around the Harlem Park neighborhood in the wake of Suiter’s death.

The homicide detective was shot once in the head with his own service weapon in a vacant lot. No suspects have been arrested, and an independent panel of policing experts is investigating the death and expected to release its findings later this month.

The monitoring team analyzed records, viewed body-worn camera footage and interviewed officers involved and found that the police department “likely took actions inconsistent with the Consent Decree.”

It found officers stopped civilians and restricted access to a large area around the crime scene “for several days after the threat of an armed and dangerous suspect had dissipated.” It also said officers conducted warrant checks “without reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that the individuals had committed a crime.”

The monitors found that police also frisked nine people unlawfully, because the officers did not have probable cause to arrest any of them, and didn’t end up arresting those nine individuals.

Such interactions, the monitors said, only continue to worsen community relations.

“By subjecting to probable unconstitutional treatment individuals who appeared to be trying to assist the investigation, BPD created disincentives for these individuals to seek to assist in the future,” the monitors said.

Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department is awaiting the independent panel’s recommendations, and declined to comment on the monitor’s report.

The decision to maintain the six square-block perimeter for nearly five days came from the highest levels of the department, including then-Commissioner Kevin Davis, but was not common practice, the report showed.

Davis said at the time that preservation of the crime scene was “necessary.”

City Solicitor Andre M. Davis said in November that he felt there weren’t legal concerns with the department’s response in Harlem Park.

But on Wednesday, Davis said “there’s no question we got a number of things wrong.”

Harlem Park, he said, offers “a big learning experience” to improve practices.

David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which criticized the department’s tactics and treatment of residents at the time, said the report demonstrates systemic failures throughout the department.

“This shows the critical importance of the DOJ investigation, findings and consent decree and the independent monitoring that this process created,” Rocah said. “Absent that, we would not have either the facts that we now have — which are very significant and devastating — and we wouldn’t have the transparency that we now have.”

The report also shows either the department’s ignorance of or arrogance about residents’ rights, Rocah said.

“This is Fourth Amendment 101…,” he said. “This is basic policing. But because a police officer had died, the rules were thrown away.”

Most of the information collected by the monitoring team was from body cameras worn by officers at the scene and not from documentation of the stops and searches at Harlem Park, which Rocah said shows the department cannot be trusted to police itself. More stops were captured on the footage than were documented in the homicide case file, the monitoring report said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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