The Baltimore Bloc Opposes 14-0443: An Open Letter

The following is an open letter from the Baltimore Bloc:

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To the Baltimore City Council, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts.

We write to you today to voice our opposition to Bill 14-0443, and any other decision made regarding public safety and the Baltimore Police Department without the participation and approval of the West Coalition and other families and victims of police violence here in Baltimore.

Any action taken without the support of the families and victims of police violence lacks true legitimacy; therefore, any discussion regarding the implementation of body cameras by Baltimore Police must from here on include the West Coalition. The City Councilmembers can refer to a letter they received from the West Coalition (West Family Coalition Letter) on September 7, outlining the Coalition’s list of demands, the first of which demands body cameras for all Baltimore Police officers.

The current bill that Councilman Warren Branch and Council President Jack Young are trying to pass is a weak piece of legislation that does not meet the standards of transparency and accountability that we as victims and families of police violence expect. We would ask for the following changes:

It should not be new Baltimore Police recruits that begin wearing the body-cameras first, as the bill currently states — it should be, first and foremost, the officers that already have histories of police brutality and misconduct, and also the plainclothes unit known as the Special Enforcement Section, which perpetrated the murders of Anthony Anderson and Tyrone West, as well as the brutal assault on Abdul Salaam.

The video and audio content captured by the body cameras should automatically be archived directly to an independent grassroots party, who will maintain the footage and preserve it in the event that charges or civil suits are brought against officers.

Furthermore, the implementation of the body camera program must be observed closely by an independent grassroots body, such as Baltimore Bloc. This would include access to the research and findings of the  “working group” appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, as well as oversight of the training of the officers.

Regardless of what happens here and now at the city level, we demand that the members of the City Council and the Mayor’s Office unconditionally support any legislation sponsored by the West Coalition and Baltimore Bloc in the upcoming General Assembly, regarding not only the issue of body cameras but also any other public safety issue that has to do with the Baltimore Police Department, including legislation aimed at amending or repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

– Baltimore Bloc

The Ghost of Tyrone West: A Year in the Death

The evening of July 18, 2014 marks the one year anniversary of the beating death of Tyrone West.  On that day at 6:30, the West Family will gather at the scene where Tyrone was killed for a memorial service. There will be a prayer; words shared by the West Family and members of the community—even witnesses who have come forth as well as those who have yet to do so.

Since Tyrone’s untimely death, the West Family has waged an unyielding fight for justice. Every Wednesday, the West Family has mobilized at various locations around the city. These manifestations have become known as #WestWednesday’s, and as of today, there have been over 50, which target the various institutions involved in Tyrone’s death.

To learn more about the movement against police brutality, and how to get involved, join the Baltimore Public Safety Collective at Red Emma’s every Saturday at 2:30 pm… and keep your ears and eyes open for the next #WestWednesday.

On the evening of July 18, 2013, Tyrone West was driving a friend home when an unmarked police vehicle pulled them over for an alleged traffic violation. According to witnesses, officers immediately opened the vehicle and dragged Tyrone out by his dreadlocks, beginning to beat, mace, and taze him. In audio of the two officers calling for back-up, Tyrone’s voice can be heard in the background calling for help, a plea witnesses heard him make too.

By the end of the attack, 10+ Baltimore Police and a Morgan State University officer stood over Tyrone’s lifeless body. None of these officers involved in Tyrone’s death were suspended by the Baltimore Police Department, nor were any prosecuted by the State’s Attorney’s Office, and thus remain on active duty today. The Baltimore Police denied forcibly removing Tyrone from the vehicle. Instead, they said they had politely asked Tyrone and the passenger if they could search the vehicle, to which they allegedly consented to. It was when they attempted to search Tyrone, Police say, that he allegedly attacked the officers. The Police claim they discovered a gram of cocaine in a field Tyrone had ran across in an attempt to flee from them. However, they also said they found that gram in 14 different bags, raising questions that remain unanswered about how and why one gram of cocaine would be divided in 14 bags.

The West Family reject the version of events as told by the Baltimore Police. The West Family argue that the two officers that initially pulled Tyrone over: Nicholas David Chapman and Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz, are “Violent Repeat Offendicers,” and should have already been suspended for their role in the beating of Abdul Salaam, 17 days prior to the beating death of Tyrone. Abdul, who lives only a couple blocks away, was also pulled over for an alleged traffic violation and forcibly removed from his vehicle, like Tyrone had been. The officers beat Abdul in his driveway in front of his three year old son, and then threatened to take him, because he wasn’t wearing his seat-belt. All charges were eventually dropped. A complaint was immediately filed with internal affairs, however they have yet to respond or return any of Abdul’s property.

The West Family was not able to see Tyrone’s body for over 5 days. According to the autopsy report, the Medical Examiner’s Office had completed the autopsy within 24 hours of Tyrone’s death, but it took 145 days before the State’s Attorney’s Office would release a preliminary report, which claimed that Tyrone had “died of Cardiac Arrhythmia due to Cardiac Conduction System Abnormality complicated by Dehydration during police restraint.” However, the Medical Examiner’s Office still ruled that cause of death “could not be determined.”

The West Family approached Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in person on four different occasions demanding accountability, before she finally came out on December 06, 2013 (140 days later) with a public letter addressed to State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, asking him to release the autopsy report as “expeditiously as possible.” Both, the letter by the Mayor and release of the preliminary autopsy report were on the eve of the Baltimore City Council’s Public Safety Committee hearing on December 12, 2013, which the West Family had forced after confronting Councilman Bill Henry in City Hall back in October.  However the State’s Attorney’s Office and Medical Examiner’s Office abstained from attending the hearing, and the Baltimore Police Department excused themselves after their 10 minute presentation that did not answer any questions about the case.

Six days before Christmas, on December 19, 2014, State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein finally announced that he would not prosecute any of the officers involved in the beating death of Tyrone. When the West Family attempted to attend the press conference, they were threatened with arrest (at 15:30) by Baltimore Police Detectives who guarded Bernstein’s office.

Throughout the entire investigation, the name of one of the officers involved in the case, Morgan State University officer David Lewis, was never identified. It was only until after the criminal investigation was over, and the West Family was able to obtain the FOIA file, that they discovered his identity, and that Lewis had been the officer that sat on Tyrone’s back as he took his last breath.

After discovering his name, several #WestWednesday’s were concentrated on Morgan State University, warning students about a Killer Cop on their campus. Once the West Family obtained photos of some of the officers did they learn that in fact they had come face to face with the Killer Cop while raising awareness on campus. Lewis is also the only officer that refused to participate in the criminal investigation by the State’s Attorney’s Office. The two initiating officers, Chapman and Ruiz, were not interviewed by the State’s Attorney’s Office until October 28, 2013, three months after the incident had occurred. Most of the officers involved were interviewed between October and December.

It wasn’t until the conclusion of the criminal investigation by the State’s Attorney’s Office that the Baltimore Police Department’s Office of Internal Affairs began their administrative investigation. None of the officers were disciplined as a result of the administrative investigation. Baltimore Police have not made the details of the investigation available to the public.

Following the criminal and administrative investigations is what the Mayor and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts have been calling an “independent review board,” which will review the incident and make recommendations (if any) to the Police Commissioner for consideration. The members of the “independent” review board are appointed by the Baltimore Police’s Office of Internal Affairs; in previous cases, such as the in-custody killing of Anthony Anderson, members of the review board held positions in other police departments and state’s attorney’s offices around Maryland.

As of today, the “independent review board” still has not concluded their review.

The Baltimore Civilian Review Board did not play a role in any investigation in the West case because they do not have the authority to investigate deadly use of force incidents. The Baltimore Police recently announced their intention to allow them to do so in the future, however there are many other issues that continue to withhold the Civilian Review Board from possessing any meaningful power.

The West Family continues to pursue an investigation by the United States Department of Justice as they have sought since the beginning.

 

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Police shoot robbery suspect outside Baltimore homeless shelter

Police shoot robbery suspect outside Baltimore homeless shelter

(my summary)

A man was shot by Baltimore City Police because he fit the description of an “armed robber” given by a local homeless shelter. Witnesses state that he did have a gun that he aimed into the air. This is not confirmed. As the man lay “writhing” on the ground the police noted a firearm near him as they placed their crime scene tape around him. A woman, possibly a relative of the shot man, was arrested with no explanation offered.

The police have shot five people this year, four in this past month alone.

No additional details were forthcoming.

_______________________________

(my critical analysis)

Fenton’s narrative is deliberately misleading. While the title of the article states that it will discuss the police shooting of a man, the first two paragraphs deal with a separate, unrelated homicide. By setting the article up as he has, Fenton conjures the image of the brave police valiantly working a homicide, presumably protecting citizens. This helps take the heat off of the police who shot a man who fit the description of an armed robbery, thus, committing the fifth shooting of a citizen by the police this month. Fenton’s tone does not state this as a problematic fact, leaving the reader with the impression that the problem is with the victims rather than the police. Remember – he starts the article talking about an unrelated homicide the police had just come from – which makes it easier to underplay the idea of police actions as problematic.

Reading between the lines, in Fenton’s convoluted article, I know that a man (near a homeless shelter – information designed to cast further doubt on the victim) may have looked like a description of an armed robber. Police encountered him. He allegedly had a gun and allegedly pointed it in the air. A friend says the victim was recently robbed and may have had a gun for protection. He did not point at the police. The police allegedly ordered him to drop the gun and then fired six shots – injuring the victim.

Then Fenton mentions that a probably female relative of the victim who tried to help the man was taken away in handcuffs. Wait. What? They arrested someone who was a relative of the man who was now “writhing” on the sidewalk while they continued to place the crime scene tape around him.  For what? Why? It appears that her crime – witnessing the police action, aiding the victim, or simply getting in the way of dirty cops covering their tracks – required her arrest.

The need to control the narrative – to shape the way in which this story is told – is something Fenton does over and over again. The same theme of big brave police being forced to shoot and/or kill a suspect rather than arresting him/her is found throughout his body of work. He is paid by the Baltimore Sun – there is no money or job security in his telling the truth, turning the lens through which he writes into one of questioning police behavior or even one of neutrality.

Glaring omissions in this story beg to be told but will never be addressed by Fenton or the Baltimore Sun.

–        How does the homeless shelter play into this – I know they are inherently unsafe and so do the police.

–        Is this a homeless man? Because the article implies that he is, and if he is what can this tell us about the relationship that the BCPD have with this population.

–        How did the encounter actually go down? Did the police rush the man? Did they try to talk reasonably or did they shoot first? What procedures were and were not followed in this incident – this seems to me to be the crucial question in all police involved shootings – we need details

–        Who were the police involved? Do any of them have a history of shooting other citizens or other illegal police behavior?

–        Are victims of police shootings considered guilty and in need of serious harm or death because no-one will question the very machine built to protect the cops, the city government, the corporations and all of the powerful who have the ability to stop this genocide? This machinery is one that Fenton perpetuates.

–        RACE. How does Fenton leave this issue out of his articles? Because the police are disproportionately shooting black men in Baltimore. So this story, assuming the victim was black, fits the racial profiling long established by the police here in Baltimore. How do you leave this most important equation out of this story? Baltimore police are involved in a genocide, they are involved in race-based hate crimes.

The Morrell Park “Police Impersonation” (Or Was It?): BPD Kill Burglary Suspect and Sit on Details for Days

On Wednesday, February 12, 2014, Baltimore Police Department officers shot two suspects in two separate incidents, wounding an unarmed robbery suspect at the Mondawmin 7-11 on Liberty Heights Avenue and killing a burglary suspect in a house on Spence Street in Morrell Park in the Southwest.  Details have been spotty from both the Department itself and the Baltimore Sun, which published a confusing, 24-paragraph article from Justin George and Colin Campbell on its website Thursday morning purporting to contain “new details.”  We will look at each incident in its own post, starting with the fatal shooting.

The Morrell Park Shooting – Police Impersonation?

The second paragraph of George & Campbell’s Thursday article reads:

In a span of less than two hours Wednesday night, Baltimore police officers killed a man they said appeared to be impersonating an officer during a burglary and wounded another man they said robbed a convenience store. [emphasis added]

No specific official is quoted saying the man appeared to impersonate an officer, though Sgt. Sarah Connolly is named later as the spokesperson responsible for other, contradictory information.  Much later in the article, the 21st through 23rd paragraphs (which many readers will not get to) give more detail while creating more confusion:

At 10:52 p.m., officers responded to a home in the 1800 block of Spence St. in Southwest Baltimore’s Morrell Park neighborhood for a report of a burglary. As they entered shortly before 11 p.m., officers saw signs of a burglary in progress and encountered two people. Both wore clothes that had the word “police” on them.

Police said one of the men had a gun, and the officers yelled several times at him to drop his weapon before both officers shot him. The man, who was not identified, was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after. No officers were injured.

Detectives believe the men broke into the home but did not impersonate police to gain entry, Connolly said. [emphasis added]

We do not know which, if any, Baltimore Police Department spokesperson or officer gave the information on the first page: that officers believed the man they shot to death was impersonating an officer.  We do know that the official, named spokesperson says that detectives did not impersonate police.  Readers who did not make it through the first 23 paragraphs of this 24-paragraph article do not know this, however.

Another bit of confusion related to this shooting was what became of the second suspect.  As of the publishing of the George/Campbell article, neither the name of the victim who was killed nor the name of his alleged burglary accomplice had been released.  According to the final paragraph:

Police are not releasing the names of any of the suspects or the officers who fired at the suspects. Their names will be released 48 hours after each incident, which is Baltimore police policy.

Colin Campbell and another Sun reporter, Carrie Wells, were asked for an update that same day:

By Saturday, BPD still had not released the names of any of the suspects as required by their 48-hours policy, according to Wells who was attempting to get the information:

On Monday the 17th, the fifth day after the shooting, neither the Sun nor the Department had reported any new information:

Finally, after asking directly on Twitter, we got the name of the second suspect:

The Department responded to subsequent requests for basic details with silence:

However, later on Monday night, Justin Fenton of the Baltimore Sun published an update on the Sun’s website, headlined “Morrell Park police shooting victim refused to drop revolver, records say,” which he tweeted about like so:

The article names the shooters as Officers Michael McNish and Aileen Villodas and details their claims that before being killed the victim, 22-year-old Bernard Lofton, refused to drop his gun and “turned toward” a third officer, Hovhannes Simonyan, and declared that the officers were “going to have to shoot” him.  It also names the second suspect, Brandon Smith, and in the final paragraph, lists the charges against him:

Smith has been charged with burglary, conspiracy to committed armed robbery, impersonating a police officer, and other related charges, and was being held on $150,000 bond. An attorney is not listed in court records.

There is no mention in the Sun’s coverage to date of the discrepancies in what was reported by the official in charge of the Department’s Twitter account and the actual charging documents, nor any mention of the violation of Department policy that occcurred when BPD held back the victim’s and suspect’s name for nearly five days.

In my next post I will look at the sparser but more troubling coverage of the shooting of the unarmed suspect in the Northwest.

New Baltimore City Police Program to Reduce Racial Profiling and Crime

According to Gigi Barnett at CBS Channel 13, the city police department is beginning a new effort to reduce racial profiling.  The program is initiative started by Police Commissioner Batts and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.  Read the short article on the CBS 13 website.

Essentially the article is a short political write up and a press release by mayor’s office and nothing else.  There is no investigative reporting nor any analysis.  However, what the article’s title raise one very important question.  Is the city admitting that there is a police driven crime problem in Baltimore?  Or is the title merely written to bait readers?