Police body-camera footage from the days after Det. Sean Suiter was shot to death in West Baltimore shows residents of Harlem Park living under police watch — with officers stopping everyone entering the neighborhood and residents having to show identification as they tried to get to and from their homes.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said the videos, which the Baltimore Police Department provided this week in response to independent Public Information Act requests by The Baltimore Sun and the ACLU, showed a disregard for residents’ constitutional rights at the highest levels of the department.
“What I see in the videos is the people of Harlem Park living in a police state where walking out of their house subjects them to a warrantless stop by a police officer asking them for ID,” said David Rocah, the Maryland ACLU’s senior staff attorney. “None of that, in my view, is legal. None of that, in my view, is what is supposed to happen in the United States.”
Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department would not be commenting on the videos until the independent review board appointed to investigate Suiter’s shooting and the department’s response to it finishes its work. The review is expected to take months.
In one video taken two days after Suiter was shot in mid-November, a man is stopped on the street about 1:40 a.m. by an officer who tells him he can’t go home without first providing a photo ID.
“In order for you to be able to walk down here, we have to be able to ID you,” the officer says.
The man tells the officer that all his identification has been stolen, except for his birth certificate, which is in his house. He says he hasn’t been home since the day before, and that he has a dog in his house “that hasn’t been out in 24 hours.”
The officer apologizes, but still prevents him from passing.
In another video from that afternoon, a 66-year-old man tells an officer he needs to catch a bus and is escorted by an officer out of a cordoned-off street.
“How you doing this morning?” the officer asks.
“I’m doing all right,” the man responds. “My wife is having a fit. I retired two years ago, right? Paid the house off, figured I’d be all right. Now she wants to move, because she says it’s just too terrible around here.”
“Hopefully, sir, it’ll get better,” the officer replies.
The police department released a few dozen videos to The Sun and the ACLU of Maryland, and called them “only a partial production” of the broader collection of footage requested. The department is expected to release additional videos as its review of footage continues. It did not give a time frame for future releases.
Police have said it was necessary to cordon off the neighborhood in the days after Suiter’s death to ensure the safety of the community, preserve the crime scene, and pursue leads in the earliest stages of the investigation. The neighborhood was shut off for five days.
Suiter’s killing remains unsolved.
“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,” the ACLU said at the time.
Rocah said the videos confirmed residents’ accounts of their rights’ being violated — and not by individual rogue officers, but by those politely following directives from commanders.
“What this shows is that despite all of these official claims about a commitment to reform … the Baltimore Police Department at its highest levels treats the people of Baltimore like they don’t matter at all, or at least treats the people of poor black Baltimore, to be more specific, like they don’t matter at all,” Rocah said. “A police state enforced by polite police officers is no less a police state.”
The ACLU and the Sun separately requested videos of street interactions with pedestrians and motorists, and of searches of occupied homes within the area that was cordoned off. The videos released this week captured only street interactions.
Residents are stopped on the street and asked questions. They are required to show identification to get to their homes. Sometimes they are prevented from getting home, ask when the lockdown will be lifted and are given vague answers. The officers watch residents performing mundane tasks, such as taking their dogs outside to relieve themselves.
Most of the residents are cordial with the officers. Several express condolences for Suiter’s death.
“We understand y’all got a job to do,” the 66-year-old man says in another recorded interaction. “Y’all trying to get as much information so you can get this thing settled.”
Other residents express frustration with the police.
A woman walks through the neighborhood the night after Suiter was shot. An officer asks for her name and address. She responds with questions of her own.
“Everybody who’s trying to get home, you did this to?” she asks.
The officer says everyone who walks through the area is being stopped.
“I’m just trying to do my job. I’m not trying to be ...” the officer begins.
“And I’m just trying to get to my house,” the woman says. “My house, where I live at.”
Police said from the beginning that they were aware of the imposition of their investigation, and asked for community members’ patience and support.
The footage released included a video capturing an interaction between a police sergeant and Shantay Guy of Baltimore Community Mediation. Guy is the official liaison between the community and the team monitoring the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.
Guy, standing near a perimeter of the cordoned-off neighborhood, identifies herself and tells the sergeant she is “interested in having conversations with community members who live in this cordoned space, to figure out what engagement has been looking like during your investigation.”
The sergeant asks her for identification and tells her he will try to get some clarification from his superiors about letting her into the area.
He also offers his own thoughts on how things were going with residents.
“They were upset or frustrated at the beginning, and now ... everything has slowed down, everybody sees how we’re doing things,” he says. “We’ve given them contact receipts, they’re holding onto them, so when they come out — especially the people that live in this block — they show us that, and we just escort them and make sure they’re not going into the sensitive area where they don’t need to be. And it seems to be working. I mean, yes, it’s an inconvenience for most.”
“Any challenges associated with those residents that don’t necessarily have photo ID being able to gain access back into their residence?” Guy asks.
The sergeant says that has not been a problem to his knowledge.
In other videos, police ask residents about Suiter’s shooting.
A man seated on a curb tells an officer he is a drug user, and says detectives already have asked him to keep an ear out for information about the shooting.
Suiter’s killing has perplexed investigators for months. Some in the police department believe Suiter was killed; others believe he committed suicide. Suiter was scheduled to testify the day after he was shot before a federal grand jury looking into the corrupt police Gun Trace Task Force. The FBI has said it does not believe Suiter’s death was related to his pending testimony.
“What’s street talk saying?” the officer asks the man on the curb.
“Nothing yet,” the man says.
In the video of the 66-year-old man being escorted down his block, the man tells the officer how saddened he was by Suiter’s death.
“That’s sad. That man got a family,” he says. “Now he’s gone.”
“He was a good guy, too,” the officer responds.