Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Now a panel says Det. Suiter's death was a suicide. Can Baltimore trust anything the police say?

After Det. Sean Suiter's death, Baltimore police shut down Harlem Park for days, told the public that a dangerous killer was on the loose, described a scene of violent struggle and amassed an unprecedented reward for information about the case. Now a panel convened by the city’s former commissioner says Det. Sean Suiter’s death was probably a suicide. You’ll pardon us — and plenty of other Baltimoreans — for being dubious. There is simply too much uncertainty about this case and about the department’s ability to investigate anything having to do with itself to accept that conclusion as definitive without a lot of new evidence.

The panel has yet to release its report, so we can’t completely discount the possibility that the group of retired police officers and an attorney found something that months of effort by Baltimore’s homicide unit did not. But what we know paints a confounding picture that doesn’t fit neatly with suicide any more than it does with the idea that Suiter was fatally shot with his own service weapon by a phantom black man in a black jacket with a white stripe who then disappeared without a trace (DNA, fingerprints or otherwise) despite a reward of more than $200,000 for information leading to his capture. No evidence has come to light to suggest that Suiter planned to take his own life, and the idea that he plotted his own death so meticulously to make it look like a homicide is the stuff of Hollywood. Are we to believe he intentionally sent his partner around the corner, found a spot with no security cameras or witnesses, dirtied his knee to create evidence of a struggle, made a garbled radio dispatch in which gunfire can be heard and then shot himself in the back of the head?

We consider the conspiracy theories floating around West Baltimore that Suiter was killed by his fellow police or someone else in connection with his pending testimony in the Gun Trace Task Force case wildly implausible. All else aside, there was simply too much evidence against the GTTF members for Suiter's testimony to be pivotal. But we’re not surprised that many people believe that version of events. Whatever trust in the department remained after years of bad relations in West Baltimore was poisoned by its handling of this case.

The team monitoring Baltimore’s compliance with its federal consent decree over police practices recently reported on widespread constitutional abuses during the course of its investigation into Suiter's death. During the period immediately after the killing, it sealed off the neighborhood, conducted warrant checks “without reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that the individuals had committed a crime” and made unlawful searches, according to a report from the monitor. All that was under the guise of protecting the neighborhood from a dangerous fugitive and/or preserving the crime scene, but the response was so wildly out of proportion to what takes place after any of the hundreds of other homicides that occur in Baltimore in any given year that it inevitably raised widespread resentment and suspicion.

The Suiter case — from his connection to the Gun Trace Task Force to the blatant disregard of the constitution in the investigation of his death to the inability of the department to bring anyone to justice — represents virtually every strand of failure in what has been one of the lowest points in the Baltimore Police Department’s history. We have no idea who killed Sean Suiter. Each explanation is as implausible as the next, and we are truly sorry to think that his family and colleagues may never get a definitive answer. But what we should not do is pretend that we have found one and move on.

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