A cluster of American flags fluttering in the wind at the corner of a vacant lot in West Baltimore marks the spot where the city began to transition from somewhat tolerable pockets of hope, opportunity and chaos into a town where anything goes .
In less than three weeks, spanning between late October and mid-November, an armed security guard had been gunned down while working late hours to pay for Christmas gifts, an off-duty officer for the Metropolitan Police Department was shot to death inside a car, and a Baltimore homicide detective was mysteriously killed with a bullet from his own gun while trying to solve one of the city’s hundreds of unsolved murders. The flags pay tribute to the last day he was alive, and mark the first day of abject uncertainty.
People were already being killed in Baltimore at a record pace , but now previously unthinkable crimes were being thrown into the mix—and for weeks and weeks afterwards, they left deep scars in the city and remained unsolved.
A City Torn Apart
For Baltimore, the death of forty-three-year-old homicide detective Sean Suiter was destructive in multiple ways. In the days following the fatal shooting, the people who lived in the houses surrounding the shooting site, a neighborhood known as Harlem Park, were subjected to a variety of restrictions designed to weed out the individual whom police believed had been injured when they shot Suiter. The neighborhood that police cordoned off after the shooting had many vacant houses, and the suspect could have hidden inside any one of them. Its alleyways were cluttered with trash, which could have been used to conceal evidence. It was rife with opportunities for someone with bad intentions. Perhaps the suspect was even getting assistance from a resident, that was something the police had to consider.
The investigation into Suiter’s death continued for days, and eventually some residents started to complain about how they were expected to show identification to police and couldn’t drive their vehicles down the street to their homes. Those concerns caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which said in a November 19 statement that it was also “troubled by reports” that people entering or leaving the area were subjected to pat-down searches and that nonresidents had been barred from entering the area.
“While the search for a killer is, of course, a high priority for people, the limits on lawful police behavior do not disappear even when engaged in that pursuit,” the statement said. “And at least one federal appellate court has said that a similar police cordon and checkpoint system was unconstitutional.”
That 2009 ruling was made by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit back in response to a crime-reduction checkpoint program the Metropolitan Police Department instituted in 2008. The Maryland ACLU, wary of the similarities between the 2008 incident and the police activity in Harlem Park, is now seeking access to body-camera footage that shows how the Baltimore Police Department’s officers interacted with civilians during the investigation.
Unconstitutional conduct—even the perception of unconstitutional conduct—is not a small issue in Baltimore.
“Many people in Baltimore see these actions as a reflection of the way in which the police—and not only police, but other institutions in Baltimore—treat residents as if they don’t really matter,” David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the Maryland ACLU, said. “Obviously what happened here was extraordinary in terms of the police behavior and isn’t what normally happens when there’s a shooting, and the way in which residents lives were upended as a result—with no real explanation and no adequate thus far justification—I think is rightly seen as reflecting a fundamental disconnect between rhetoric and reality.”
The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to questions about whether it intended to make amends with Harlem Park residents or alter the way it handled high-profile investigations in the future. And there’s a danger in that, said Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Creating discontent and distrust in the community puts the police investigation in jeopardy, said Smith, who used to run the Public Justice Center in Baltimore.
“It may create such hostility in the community that your best witnesses might not be willing to work with the police department to solve this problem,” he said.
Additionally, dismissing that discontent may impact some of the positive moves the department has made toward reforming past police practices by reinforcing negative police stereotypes, Smith said.
“There is a long history of police going into the African-American community and doing things like extensive stop-and-frisk, closing corners, holding people without lawful arrests—and this is happening against that backdrop at a time when reform is just beginning, and I’ve got to believe this has been a setback for the reform process.”