The narrow topic of the meeting at a Harlem Park church last night, held just a few blocks from where Detective Sean Suiter was murdered, was supposed to be about the neighborhood lockdown that followed.
But the Civilian Review Board town hall gathering ended up serving as a flashpoint for decades of anger towards Baltimore police and fresh rage over the latest revelations:
Not only that Suiter was scheduled to testify, the day after he was shot, in the case of fellow officers indicted on corruption charges, but that one of those officers allegedly placed packets of heroin in a man’s car seven years ago, tricking Suiter into “finding” them.
“They used the detective to plant the drugs in the car and he had no knowledge of that,” Lavonne White said. “Police have been allowed to abuse their authority for years in Baltimore.”
Many derided the recently empaneled review board, saying its lack of power over the police high command or the Fraternal Order of Police union renders it incapable of reforming an agency clouded by allegations of corruption.
“This detective’s murder was an inside job. This is what people think, and many people are not going to come and speak to you. They’re not going to write their names on a piece of paper,” said Nneka Namdi.
“I encourage the review board to do some clandestine investigations,” she said, “because people are really in fear for their lives.”
Board has Limited Power
It was a harsh initiation for new members of the nine-person body, introduced to the audience of about 75 people by Jill P. Carter, director of the city’s Office of Civil Rights.
Appointed by Mayor Catherine Pugh, the all-volunteer review board is tasked with investigating complaints of excessive force, abusive language, harassment, false arrest and false imprisonment by police.
But the board does not have the power to subpoena officers accused of wrongdoing and has extremely limited powers to do much more than make recommendations to the police commissioner.
“I agree with you,” Carter said several times to audience critics, urging them to go to Annapolis to help lobby for changes.
She pointed to a report her office issued with 15 recommendations to make the board more effective.
They include having civilians serve on police discipline trial boards, expanding the scope of complaint types it can review, requiring that officers and agencies to cooperate with the board’s investigations, and granting an annual operating budget.
Carter had called the meeting after the Harlem Park lockdown drew deep concern from residents, activists and civil liberties lawyers.
An area of several blocks was cordoned off by police, and people were required to show identification at police checkpoints in order to enter. People reported being questioned and even patted-down and frisked.
Search and Seizure
Asked if the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland would sue the city, staff attorney David Rocah stopped short of making any commitment, saying his office was still gathering information.
But in his review of the legal questions at play in the Harlem Park lockdown, he indicated last night that he had serious concerns.
Restricting access to a crime scene can be legitimate, Rocah said, “but it is unclear to me why preserving the crime scene required shutting down multiple blocks and barring people from entering.”
A 2008 checkpoint system set up by Washington, D.C., police in the “Trinidad neighborhood” was ruled unconstitutional, Rocah said. What happened in West Baltimore went beyond what took place in Washington, he said, noting that it only involved motorists being stopped.
The stops by Baltimore police of pedestrians and motorists could be considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, he said.
Another concern is the frisks and pat-downs, which he said are only permitted when a person is suspected of having committed a crime.
“Simply living in Harlem Park, living on one of those blocks,” he said, “is not a reasonable basis for suspecting a person of having committed a crime.”
Justin Sanders, a University of Baltimore adjunct faculty member, said he works with young people across the city who told him the lockdown policy was enforced harshly on them.
Calling the review board process “opaque,” Sanders urged the board to make its procedures more clear and accessible to young people. “They don’t speak to them in their language,” he said, referring to the board.
Excusing Police Misbehavior
Namdi asked whether it was legal for the police to have prevented people from receiving their mail during the lockdown.
Seemingly small things send a cruel message about inequity, she said. The bright lights blaring all night in her West Baltimore neighborhood that are intended to deter crime , for instance, “make you feel like you’re under a microscope.”
Another woman told a story of having seen a youth savagely beaten by police (“Today that young man is damaged,” she said) and then having the complaint die at an earlier incarnation of the review board.
“What was practiced on these people was damn terrorism,” said Donald Smith, blaming “the folks that are in the political arena.”
Lavonne White blamed Police Commissioner Kevin Davis for giving excuses for officer misbehavior. After some officers were shown on body-camera video apparently planting evidence earlier this year, she noted, “he said they might be reenacting the crime.”
“We need laws to be changed so we can go over his head,” she concluded.