A report by outside experts makes the case for why Baltimore Police Detective Sean Suiter must have killed himself, while also scrutinizing how the investigation was handled.
Then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis is singled out for withholding information about corruption allegations Suiter faced. The panel of experts concluded by saying that the handling of the case had harmed the department’s reputation and sounded the alarm that the police department might be unable to reform itself.
The detective’s death was one of the highest-profile cases in the city’s history, with officials offering a $215,000 reward for information. But as weeks passed, investigators couldn’t find a suspect and inside the police department some officers began to question whether Suiter had killed himself.
The seven-member outside panel concluded that suicide was the only possible explanation. Here are the major takeaways from the 127-page report:
Forensic evidence, witness accounts and a video — as well as Suiter’s role in the Gun Trace Task Force investigation — convinced the panel that suicide was the only explanation.
The panel cited evidence from Suiter’s service weapon, which they established fired the fatal shot, DNA from Suiter found inside the gun barrel and the presence of blood inside his right shirt sleeve in supporting its conclusion. Witness accounts and a video, which was released along with the report, established a timeline that would have given an assailant mere seconds to have killed Suiter.
The panel didn’t establish a motive but emphasized that the incident happened on the eve of Suiter’s scheduled testimony before a federal grand jury investigating the corrupt task force.
“The Board concludes that, based upon the totality of the evidence, Detective Suiter intentionally took his own life with his service weapon,” the panel wrote.
The panel explored the possibility that Suiter had been killed by an unknown assailant; by his partner, Det. David Bomenka; or accidentally by falling and firing his gun. It ruled out each scenario.
Former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis is singled out for criticism.
The panel reported that Davis, who was fired in January over stubbornly high crime rates, misled the public about the case and withheld information he received from federal authorities from homicide detectives.
Federal authorities from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI’s Baltimore office told Davis the day after Suiter was fatally shot that he had been a “subject” of their Gun Trace Task Force investigation — a designation that falls on a spectrum between a witness and someone who prosecutors believe could be charged with a crime. The federal officials said they had conflicting accounts about Suiter’s involvement in a drug-planting incident and testimony that Suiter had previously been involved in robberies.
Nevertheless, Davis said publicly there was no indication Suiter was a “dirty cop.” And FBI agents realized in late November that Davis didn’t appear to be sharing information internally so they decided to set up a way to share information with homicide detectives directly.
“It should go without saying that police officers should be candid and complete in sharing information about a potential homicide with the lead investigators,” the panel wrote.
Before the report was released, Davis criticized its expected findings, saying the police department couldn’t face the idea that the killing of one of its own had gone unsolved.
Investigators made several missteps with how they handled the investigation and some key evidence.
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Baltimore Police officials initially considered turning the investigation over to another department but ultimately decided against it. The panel said that was a mistake because of the pressure homicide detectives faced in investigating the death of one of their own.
“The resolution of this investigation may well have come sooner, and without the harm to BPD’s credibility which ensued, if handled by a nearby agency,” the panel wrote.
Officers didn’t record where the bullet that killed Suiter was found or why they searched for it where they did. Nor did they have photographs of the blood inside Suiter’s shirt sleeve, which the panel considered to be key evidence in support of its conclusion. A member of the panel requested that the shirt be retrieved and photographed.
The panel said its review underscored how Baltimore Police don’t learn from their mistakes, harming their relationship with the public.
The panel members said many of the problems in the Suiter investigation could have been avoided if commanders had heeded the findings of at least five previous outside reviews.
“BPD’s inability to learn from experience, time after time, does not inspire confidence that it can be fixed from within,” the panel wrote.
The task will fall to the next police commissioner, whom the mayor’s office is in the midst of selecting. The panel recommended that whoever is hired be given broad authority by the mayor to assemble a senior team and impose changes on the department.
“Without strong leadership to model and enforce a new culture of compliance, BPD will continue to be plagued by credibility issues and operational missteps,” the panel wrote.