Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and other city leaders hold a vigil to honor those whose lives have been lost to violent crime in Baltimore this year. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
Baltimore’s 309th homicide victim of 2017 was shot in one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, and, as it was later revealed, he was about to testify in a criminal case.
But what set this killing apart from the others with which it shares the barest of outlines is that Sean Suiter was also a Baltimore homicide detective. He was shot one day before he was scheduled to testify to a grand jury investigating fellow officers, though police officials said they don’t believe that had anything to do with his death — and, as of early December, police had not ruled out the possibility that Suiter took his own life.
But in one incident, much of what plagued the city seemed to converge: the now-two-year spike in homicides and other crimes, the seeming inability of police and city officials to curtail them, and a troubled force beset by scandal even as it had embarked on a major, federally mandated series of reforms.
Here is a review of some of the major crime news of the year:
On Nov. 30, the number of homicides reached 318, the same as the total for 2016, and almost immediately surpassed it. On Dec. 27, the city reached 343 homicides and a new record for killings per capita. It was a continuation of a rise that began in 2015, when violence in the city spiked after the rioting that followed the police-custody fatal injury of Freddie Gray. Even in a city that can seem numbed by unrelenting homicides, a number of killings drew particular outrage: On June 12, Charmaine Wilson was shot in West Baltimore after calling police to report that one of her eight children was being bullied and his bike seat was stolen. There was a rise in elderly victims, including 97-year-old Waddell Tate, who was killed in July in his home in an East Baltimore neighborhood where he was known as “Pop-Pop.” In November, a Locust Point man was killed during a robbery after he stopped by a convenience store for a snack after work. Living and working in an area that had experienced a rash of violent crime, the 41-year-old had told co-workers at a Federal Hill restaurant that if he were targeted, he wouldn’t go down without a fight. The relentless violence prompted a West Baltimore woman, Erricka Bridgeford, to call for a 72-hour ceasefire in August and again in November, drawing much support for her simple message: “Nobody kill anybody.” Even though the homicides didn’t end, Bridgeford has said the effort has encouraged people not to give in to despair and accept rampant violence as a given.
Carjackings went up, as did arrests of juveniles for assaults and robberies. Many people said how unsafe they felt walking or even driving in the city. “Violence in the city is out of control,” Mayor Catherine Pugh declared on Nov. 9, ordering 30 city agency heads to meet every morning with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to coordinate crime-reduction strategies. It was only the latest effort in a year in which police tried multiple tactics: In January, for example, Davis reassigned 100 officers to patrol duty to get more presence on the streets; in March, he ordered plainclothes officers, known on the street as “knockers” and “jump-out boys” for what some felt was harassment tactics, back into uniform; in June, after a particularly violent 24 hours, he temporarily upped standard shifts from 10 to 12 hours.
Police corruption case
The federal racketeering case against members of the elite Gun Trace Task Force began with seven officers charged on March 1 with robbing people, falsifying reports and claiming unworked overtime. Eventually, two other officers would be charged, including a former Baltimore officer now with the Philadelphia Police Department. There were allegations that a suspected drug dealer was killed over a debt he couldn’t pay because one of the indicted officers had robbed him of $10,000. Others were robbed of birthday or rent money, the indictment said. One officer who pleaded guilty acknowledged that he protected a ring of heroin dealers.
Finally, after Suiter’s death, additional charges were filed against one of the indicted officers, Detective Wayne Jenkins. Prosecutors said Jenkins planted drugs on a suspect and sent Suiter to “find” them. On Dec. 1, saying he was “growing increasingly uncomfortable that my homicide detectives do not know all of the facts known to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Davis asked the FBI to investigate Suiter’s death. The FBI declined, saying it has no evidence to suggest Suiter’s death was “directly connected” to the corruption probe or any other federal case.
Over the summer, with the Police Department in the midst of outfitting all patrol officers with body cameras, another scandal emerged. There were allegations that in several instances police body camera footage may have been staged. In one, for example, an officer is seen placing what appeared to be drugs in a trash-strewn back yard, walking away and activating his body camera. The devices, though, automatically retain footage starting 30 seconds before they are activated. The officer is captured walking back to the yard and “discovering” the drugs. That and other videos led to dozens of criminal cases being dropped, adding to the department’s credibility problems.
Hogan weighs in
In August, Gov. Larry Hogan echoed a complaint of police officials that too many gun offenders in Baltimore were getting more than half of their sentences suspended. He called for a private meeting with the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which includes representatives from the City Hall, the judiciary, police and prisons and whose monthly meetings are usually open to the public. But the three judges on the council refused to meet. The state’s chief judge told Hogan it would be “inappropriate” because state law dictates that judges “not be swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism.”
The governor then opted to de-fund the council. While Hogan and Pugh had met several times to discuss Baltimore’s crime problem, in November, the governor said he was not sure what the mayor’s plan was to combat violence, or if she even had one. On Dec. 5, Hogan announced several initiatives aimed at curbing violent crime in Baltimore — ordering increased state patrols in high-crime areas and promising an “aggressive sweep” arresting criminals wanted on outstanding warrants.
Hovering over everything was an agreement the city entered into with the U.S. Department of Justice in the final days of the Obama administration to undertake sweeping reforms of the police force. The consent decree resolved a federal civil rights investigation launched after the death in April 2015 of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody and the subsequent rioting. Justice officials concluded that Baltimore police regularly engaged in discriminatory and unconstitutional practices, from excessive force to disproportionate stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans. But under the Trump administration, such decrees have decidedly less support — in April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all “existing or contemplated consent decrees,” and sought unsuccessfully to delay Baltimore’s. In October, a team of lawyers, law enforcement officials and mediators was appointed and began holding community meetings to develop a reform plan that it will submit to a federal judge and then monitor its progress. Some residents have expressed frustration that the team isn’t more engaged in immediate issues, such as the lockdown of part of the Harlem Park neighborhood after the fatal shooting of Detective Suiter, but the lead monitor said their work is limited by the federal decree.
On Nov. 22, when Davis dismissed administrative charges against Sgt. Alicia White, attempts to hold the officers involved in the arrest and transport of Freddie Gray accountable ended. White was one of the six officers criminally charged by the state’s attorney in connection with Gray’s death, which triggered rioting in the city, but all were either acquitted or had their cases dropped. Five of them faced departmental charges, with two, Officers Garrett Miller and Edward Nero, accepting minor disciplinary action rather than argue their cases before a trial board.
The van driver, Officer Caesar Goodson, was found not guilty of 21 administrative charges on Nov. 7, while the highest-ranking officer, Lt. Brian Rice, was cleared of 10 charges on Nov. 17, prompting Davis to dismiss the final administrative case against White. All six have been reinstated. Pugh has renewed her push to add civilians to the trial boards, currently composed of three law enforcement officers.