Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who led the city force last November when Detective Sean Suiter was shot to death, is criticizing the anticipated finding by an independent review board that the fallen officer likely took his own life.
Davis told The Baltimore Sun Monday that evidence in the case is open to interpretation, but he believes forces within the Baltimore Police Department stepped up efforts to reclassify the case from a homicide to a suicide because they were frustrated that they could not solve it.
“Culturally, the BPD can’t live with the fact that there’s an unsolved murder of a cop on the books,” Davis said.
Suiter was conducting a follow-up investigation on a triple homicide in West Baltimore Nov. 15 when he was shot in a vacant lot. Police have said they believe he was shot with his own weapon. The state medical examiner’s officer ruled his death a homicide.
He was given a hero’s funeral. City, state and federal agencies offered a reward for his killer. Police kept the Harlem Park neighborhood locked down for five days, as frustration in the community grew.
It was revealed that Suiter was to testify as a witness the next day before a federal grand jury investigating police corruption related to the Gun Trace Task Force. With no leads on a suspect and questions about the evidence, some investigators began to believe that Suiter killed himself, but staged it to look like a murder.
James “Chips” Stewart, a co-chairman of the independent review panel created by the city to review the investigation, declined to confirm its conclusions. He said the report was still being finalized.
But an attorney for Suiter’s widow, Nicole, confirmed that she was informed last week that the panel determined her husband took his own life.
“She is shocked by their conclusion,” said her attorney, Paul C. Siegrist. “She disagrees with their conclusion due to some inconsistencies.”
Siegrist said interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle told her she would receive a copy of the report Wednesday. Siegrist said Nicole Suiter will expand on her comments then.
Davis, who was fired by Mayor Catherine Pugh in January over what she said was her impatience with ongoing violence in the city, said he expects the report to be highly critical of him, and cautioned that he was not aware of any new evidence that might have been developed since he left the department.
“It’s OK at the end of the day to say we still don’t know,” Davis said. “We talk about probabilities and possibilities. When I left in January 2018, the probability was homicide. Suicide was always a possibility, but the strength of the evidence didn’t support it.”
The Independent Review Board was created by Davis’ successor, Darryl De Sousa, and is being paid $150,000 for its work. Stewart has worked on two prior review boards that looked into controversial city cases — the friendly fire death of an officer outside the Select Lounge in 2011 and the death of Tyrone West in police custody in 2013.
Davis was interviewed by the review board, but by only two of its members — at his request.
“I didn’t meet with the whole board, because I don’t trust the board, because there’s two BPD cops on it,” Davis said, referring to two retired homicide detectives who he said were “part of the culture.”
Davis said he told the panel members to be careful.
“I told [the panel members], ‘If you tell this city and this community that it was suicide, and that’s based on no new evidence — the evidence that existed when I was there — that’s not going to be received very well,’ ” he said.
Within the department, some think Davis released too much information to the public after Suiter’s death. Some questioned whether he mischaracterized some of that information.
At the time, Davis said police were looking for a possible suspect who was wearing a black jacket with a white stripe. The department later said that was the description of someone observed by the officers earlier on the evening.
Davis also maintained that Suiter engaged in a violent struggle with his attacker. That was revealed to be based on dirt on Suiter’s pants.
Davis said the agency was chasing down a tip that a woman was harboring an injured suspect, and police were analyzing two spots of blood found in the lot where the shooting occurred and which later turned out to be false leads.
In his interview Monday, Davis shed new light on his decision in December to publicly ask the FBI in Washington to take over the Suiter death investigation case. When he sent that request, he said, he had already been turned down by the FBI’s Baltimore field office and was trying to go over their head. The FBI in Washington also turned him down.
Suiter was a father of five and a well-regarded homicide detective. Since his death, accusations emerged during the Gun Trace Task Force trial that Suiter had stolen money with one of the eight detectives convicted in the case.
Davis said Monday that Suiter “was not a dirty cop, and that’s from [FBI Special Agent in Charge] Gordon Johnson to me.”
“I just think it’s convenient to pull Suiter into this since he can’t speak for himself,” Davis said.
But the tie to the Gun Trace Task Force corruption case also looms too large, he said, “to summarily package this up, put a bow on it as a suicide and simply put it on the shelf.”
The Sun asked Davis whether he believes Suiter was killed, and that killer remains at large.
“I think if we're not careful, and we make a premature determination that this is a suicide when the facts don’t stand up to that, then we could be letting someone get away with murder,” he said.