A special team within the Baltimore Police Department designed to investigate cases in which officers use force, discharge their weapons or are injured has “shadowed” homicide detectives from the beginning of their investigation into the fatal shooting of Det. Sean Suiter, the department confirmed Wednesday.
The Special Investigation Response Team, or SIRT, was specifically brought into the case under a departmental policy that gives it jurisdiction in cases where there is a “firearm discharge by a member, including unintentional discharges,” or where “a member suffers a serious physical injury or dies as the result of an assault,” according to T.J. Smith, the department’s chief spokesman.
The fact that SIRT is involved was revealed for the first time on Tuesday, when an agenda for the newly-created Independent Review Board was released ahead of the group’s first meeting on Thursday.
The Independent Review Board, known as the IRB, was created to lend an added layer of transparency to the investigation, police and city officials have said. The city Board of Estimates unanimously approved $149,000 for the IRB to conduct its work.
Suiter was shot once in the head with his own service weapon in a vacant West Baltimore lot in November under unclear circumstances. Some in the department believe he was killed, others believe he committed suicide. The Baltimore Sun has previously reported that two other shots from his gun were fired off as well.
Suiter was scheduled to testify the day after he was shot before a federal grand jury considering a corruption case against fellow officers who were members of the now-notorious Gun Trace Task Force. That has spurred other theories in the city as well, including that his shooting was a set up by corrupt cops. Police have acknowledged that theory, but rejected it, as has the FBI.
Despite the massive attention paid to the case, and police partially shutting down and occupying the Harlem Park neighborhood where the shooting occurred for days on end last fall, it has remained unsolved.
According to the agenda for the IRB’s first meeting, the panel will spend two-and-a-half hours reviewing the homicide investigation, and another hour reviewing the “SIRT investigation.”
It calls for both sessions to be held behind closed doors.
“The IRB expects that most of the meeting will relate to discussion of BPD’s open investigation. The IRB expects to close the portion of the meeting that will address the open investigation,” wrote James “Chips” Stewart, the panel’s chair, of CNA Consulting, the Arlington, Va., firm awarded the contract.
Asked about the separate time allotments for the homicide investigation and the SIRT investigation, Smith said Wednesday that there is not a separate SIRT investigation from the homicide investigation.
“There is no active SIRT investigation at this time. SIRT would do administrative review later in the process. It’s a homicide investigation that SIRT was shadowing from the onset,” he said. “The IRB will review all of this.”
The closed-door nature of much of the IRB’s first meeting was challenged in a letter by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on Wednesday.
In the letter, ACLU of Maryland senior staff attorney David Rocah wrote that the ACLU does not take issue with the IRB closing the portion of its meeting in which it plans to discuss the open homicide investigation into Suiter’s death, but does take issue with its closing the other portions — including one on how the department handled incident command in the Harlem Park neighborhood after Suiter’s shooting, as well as the public’s response.
Rocah said that other listed agenda items are insufficiently described on the agenda, and it is therefore unclear whether they should be conducted behind closed doors. The panel’s review of the “SIRT investigation” is one of those items, he wrote.
“To the extent the SIRT has assisted in the investigation into Det. Suiter’s death, which we do not believe has been publicly reported … the closing of this portion of the meeting would appear warranted,” Rocah wrote. “However to the extent the SIRT has been investigating anything else, it is not clear that closing is warranted, and further explanation is necessary, including what is being investigated, and why discussion of that investigation may properly remain confidential.”
Prior to the creation of the Independent Review Board, and his own firing in January, former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis had asked the FBI to take over the Suiter investigation. Davis cited the revelation to him after Suiter’s death that Suiter was a grand jury witness in a case in which federal prosecutors alleged Sgt. Wayne Jenkins planted drugs on a man and duped Suiter into finding them.
Jenkins was one of eight officers recently convicted in the broader Gun Trace Task Force case, in which the unit’s members were accused of robbing residents, stealing and reselling guns and drugs on the streets, filing false court paperwork, and making fraudulent overtime claims.
In a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Davis wrote that he was “growing increasingly uncomfortable that my homicide detectives do not know all of the facts” known to the FBI or the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The FBI declined the request.
Davis’ replacement, Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, has since said he was considering taking homicide detectives off the case, because some of them were close personal friends of Suiter’s and it was “unfair” to ask them to investigate his death.
Smith on Wednesday declined to say whether Maj. Ian Dombroski, who is head the SIRT team, was involved in shadowing the homicide investigation or had a potential conflict in doing so.
Dombroski is one of a dozen members of the Baltimore Police Department who have not been charged but were accused of misconduct during the January trial of two Gun Trace Task Force officers. Dombroski has denied those allegations against him.
The allegations came from Maurice Ward, a member of the gun unit who pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges in the GTTF case. Ward said he learned Dombroski would authorize eight hours of overtime pay that officers did not have to work, as a reward for recovering guns.
In response, Dombroski called Ward “a felon and admitted ‘professional liar,’” and said he had never authorized “Ward or any other officer to earn overtime hours not worked.”