Police Commissioner Michael Harrison is apologizing to the residents of Harlem Park and said that his department will rewrite policies on blocking off crime scenes to settle a lawsuit over a 2017 lockdown in the West Baltimore neighborhood following the death of police Detective Sean Suiter.
Four residents sued the city in federal court over the six-day lockdown. The ACLU of Maryland, which filed the lawsuit on their behalf, and the city reached the settlement. It also includes a $96,000 payment and the expungement of any records identifying the plaintiffs and members of their households that were created between Nov. 15 and Nov. 20, 2017.
Baltimore’s spending board is scheduled to approve the settlement at its meeting Wednesday, and the item was published online Monday afternoon with the rest of the board’s agenda. The city then released a copy of the settlement, which was reached earlier this month.
In his apology, a copy of which is included in the settlement, Harrison acknowledges officers who maintained the crime scene “were not guided by adequate supervision to reinforce constitutional requirements for stops and searches.”
Decisions were not guided by the “impact of sustained law enforcement presence on the community,” Harrison wrote, and the “protracted police presence” was not representative of best practices in community policing.
The Baltimore Police Department policy changes include a requirement that police complete searches of homes inside a crime scene within four hours. There also will be a ban on questioning or seeking identification from residents or their guests who want to come or go from a home within a crime scene. The settlement also will require police to provide written justification for including in a crime scene the entrance to any home that is not itself the location of a crime.
Plaintiff Juaqueta Bullock said in a news release from the ACLU that she is pleased with the outcome.
“The most important thing is that the incident won’t ever happen again. They will have to do things the right way and not harass people,” she said.
Before the changes become effective, they are subject to a review by the monitoring team overseeing the city’s federal consent decree to improve the police department.
Suiter was fatally shot Nov. 15, 2017, in the 900 block of Bennett Place, while he and a partner were out investigating homicide cases. In a frantic search for a gunman, police cordoned off several blocks, a move criticized by civil rights groups and the federal team overseeing court-ordered reforms in the department.
Officers stationed around the perimeter stopped residents, asked them for identification and ran their names through law enforcement databases. Footage from the body-worn cameras of officers showed them stopping everyone entering the neighborhood. Residents had to show identification even to simply reach their homes.
“What happened in Harlem Park needed to be challenged,” senior ACLU staff attorney David Rocah said Monday. “It was a flagrant violation of the law, and it is not enough for the city to say, ‘Whoops, our bad. We’ll do better next time.’”
While Harrison apologized for the department, he was not with the agency when Suiter died. The commissioner at the time was Kevin Davis, who was fired two months later for unrelated reasons. Davis did not respond to a request for comment.
Public apologies from police in Baltimore are rare. In 2008, city officials issued an apology to the leader of a police squad for suggesting he may have committed a drug or sex offense. He headed a squad in the Southwest District that was disbanded after an officer was accused of raping a woman in a district station. The squad leader was on vacation at the time of the alleged assault.
The monetary portion of the Harlem Park settlement will be divided among the four residents.
Suiter was shot the day before he was to appear in front of a grand jury investigating the department’s Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal, and he had been informed by the FBI that he had been accused of misconduct.
In the years since, no one has been arrested in Suiter’s death and an Independent Review Board and Maryland State Police review of the city police department’s investigation led the Baltimore Police Department to believe his death was a suicide. Harrison announced the investigation was closed, then backed away from the statement after prosecutors said they were still pursuing evidence against a possible suspect. Suiter’s family and attorney strongly pushed back on the suicide theory and his death remains classified as a homicide.
The department’s response in Harlem Park was heavily criticized by the consent decree monitoring team. The team’s report said the department maintained the lockdown well past the time in which an armed and dangerous suspect would pose a threat. It also concluded that officers conducted warrant checks without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, and frisked nine people unlawfully.
“BPD’s response to the Suiter shooting demonstrates the considerable long-term challenge it faces to ensure that its officers abide by the Constitution and the consent decree in their interactions with community members,” the monitoring team wrote in a June 2018 report.