Addressing the New Plan to Reduce Police Brutality in Baltimore

Like many major metropolitan areas, the city of Baltimore has had a major police brutality problem. The recent police shooting in Ferguson as open the spotlight on the issue across the nation. In Baltimore, police brutality has been an ongoing issue for years. Only recently have officials started to address the problem after many families began protesting the deaths of loved ones that were victims of police brutality. Some of the more visible accounts have included the deaths of Tyrone West, Anthony Anderson and George King. Others have included beatings or attacks like the case of Kollin Truss (Baltimore Sun, 2014). Countless hours of meetings, protests, official letters to call for investigations and the released video from the Kollin Truss case has finally resulted in several visible steps to address the problem. These steps include a possible Department of Justice investigation and a new plan or report to deal with police brutality. Unfortunately, the city has a history of either implementing empty reforms or simply pushing the issue under the proverbial rug. Hopefully there will be real steps taken that ensure that police brutality will be effectively monitored and addressed with real investigations.

S.R.-B. & Batts were not thrilled.

The Mayor and Police Commissioner addressing a forum on policing in Baltimore

What is being touted as a major plan to deal with police brutality, the Police Commissioner Batts and Mayor Rawlings-Blake have produced the report entitled “Preventing Harm”. In the Baltimore Sun article “Baltimore officials offer plan to curb police brutality”, the authors, Luke Broadwater and Mark Puente, describe the report as a 41 page document detailing a number of potential solutions that could be utilized to reduce the incidents of police brutality.   Some of the solutions put forward include a call to increase internal affairs staffing, conduct a study on wearable cameras, utilizing more tasers, changing the current laws that sometimes protect rogue officers and a proposed new citizen’s police academy. While many of these options have potentially positive effects, there are many questions about their effectiveness in implementation.

In many ways this report has a number of fixes that appear good on paper. The problem is that the solutions might not work as effectively as there are promised. For instance, the proposal of utilizing wearable cameras could be a good option. It could bring greater accountability and a more candid view of how police interact with people on the streets. Unfortunately, there could also be several problems with their use.   Would such video recordings be made available to the public? Who would have access to the video recordings? Would civilians be able to request recordings or would they be buried under “ongoing investigations” that seem to go one forever? There is also the issue of privacy and surveillance. Would such recordings be abused or mishandled? These problems would need to be addressed fairly quickly if they were to be implemented effectively.

The case of Tyrone West has generated a great deal of protests over the past year in Baltimore.

Numerous protests over police brutality have brought the issue to the front headlines

While the plan to implementation can be a good step in creating an atmosphere of greater accountability, would all officers wear them? Several proposals have been put forward that limit their use to either new recruits just graduating from the police academy or phasing in their use. There would need to be a full implementation if they were to be utilized fully. Simply creating a lengthy timeframe for implementing such devices could render their use moot.

Another problem is the solution potentially utilizing more numbers of tasers. For some the idea of non-lethal type weapons might appear to be an effective way to reduce police killings. The reality is far different. There are a number of cases including the death of Tyrone West and Kollin Truss where tasers were used as essentially devices of torture. Do we really want to have police officers going around essentially electrocuting residents, even those that are not charged with a crime? Tasers are also potentially deadly, even some people with healthy bodies. In many instances, officers tend to overuse tasers with the belief that they are “safe” or at least leave no marks for potential investigations. Far from reducing incidents of police brutality, tasers could actually increase them. They could also increase the fear factor and divide that the community has for the police as this time.

Beyond these problems, there is also a lack of in-depth review of how current police brutality cases are handled. There is a critical need to reform the current civilian based review board system. According to the article, “Baltimore police review board called irrelevant, ineffective”, the review board is often understaffed with vacancies, has its recommendations ignored by the police and constant complaints about its inefficiencies (Baltimore Sun, 2013).   While the current Mayor and Police Commissioner have taken steps to reform the review the board, there are still some critical changes needed. One is a streamlined process to ensure easier reporting of police related crimes. Another is greater transparency for the general public. Many cases are often kept hidden or secret from the public eyes during review board investigations. Then there are the problems where cases were either ignored or swept under the rug. Even when the review board acts on a case, it doesn’t necessarily bring charges against officers, making it harder for disciplinary actions to be enacted.

Baltimore City Police Cars

A group of police cars can cause fear among the community

A second problem is the lack of action by the state attorney’s office. Even in cases where victims were killed by the police without cause with a great deal of evidence, there is often little effort to prosecute the officers involved. In the case of Anthony Anderson, police officers physically threw the man onto the ground killing him with dozens of onlookers. His death was even ruled a homicide by the coroner’s office. Yet none of the officers were punished. With the case of Tyrone West involving multiple officers beating the man to death over an unwarranted traffic stop, none were ever held accountable. Worse, there were attempts at stonewalling the investigation over his death, delays in performing the autopsy and questions about the overall transparency of the investigation process itself. Essentially the report ignores this problem of a lack of prosecution by the state’s attorney. Even when there is evidence to support the complaint against an officer, there are often little in the way of justice involved.

A third issue is the problem of transparency. While the mayor and police commissioner promise greater accountability, will there be real reforms for transparency? Only in the last year or two have official statistics been opened to the public. These have included reports of police misconduct, legal settlements for victims of police brutality and disciplinary reports for rogue officers.   Unfortunately, there is very little that has been released about past incidents of police brutality, making it harder to discern the real facts about the issue in Baltimore. A full level of transparency would be another good step for helping to address the issue of police brutality as well as helping to re-establish a great trust of the police in the community.

To be fair there are some steps that could be positive changes for the police department. Commissioner Batts would like to reform state level protections that often cover the actions of rogue police officers.   Currently, officers can be suspended with pay during any investigations. Unless they are formally charged with a felony, police officers cannot be dismissed or punished within the police department. Batts would like to see a change in this process and bring greater power to discipline officers within the police department.

Community trust needs to be regained with the city police

Community trust needs to be regained with the city police

Perhaps the biggest positive outcome of the report is the simple fact that city officials are finally addressing the problem of police brutality with real reforms. In numerous times over the city’s history, there has been little real reform to address the problem. Bringing the issue out in public debate, making everyone aware of the problem and hopefully talking about real plans to reform the current system are positive steps in the right direction. The question is whether these steps are enough. In some ways they may not be with further actions needed for change.

Perhaps on a deeper level, there is a foundation issue that is not always talked about. That is the issue of trust between the police and the community.   Part of this problem comes from historic problems of abuse, misconduct as well as racial profiling. There is also the loss of trust that occurred with the implementation of O’Malley’s “Zero tolerance” which resulted in thousands of arrests for crimes that were either dismissed or ultimately considered trivial. This environment, coupled a history of police misconduct, helped to create the current environment where there is little trust with the city police. While Mayor Rawlings-Blake has stated her intentions to change this issue of trust, it will take further actions to do so.

In the end, reducing the incidents of police brutality may take more than what was detailed in the steps revealed in the “Reduce Harm” report produced by Police Commissioner Batts. It’s going to take both concrete actions as well as ongoing efforts to help change how police brutality is handled in the city. Only by making investigations more transparent, changing how officers are disciplined and implementing effective public review polices can the problem start to be addressed. While technological aids such as wearable cameras can be beneficial, they are not necessarily the ultimate answer. There is no quick fix to the problem. Our city requires an ongoing effort that will take years if properly implemented. Only time will tell if the city can rise to the challenge and ensure a proper policing system that does not victimize its own citizens.

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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.

 

sk○lA↯tika

Public Service Announcement

Family members of Tyrone West & Maurice Donald Johnson reflect on the struggle for justice after the “Public Safety Summit” at Morgan State.

Tawanda Jones reports that her family is being harassed by police. They were also approached by a bishop who offered them hush money. She says:

“If anything happens to the West family or friends, please blame the City of Baltimore.”

Marcella Holloman’s son, Maurice Donald Johnson, was killed in front of her, in her house, by police. She reminds us:

“And they think that people don’t get killed in they house, in the United States. Yes, they do. [Yes they do.] They think all this killing happen in Iran and Iraq. They just run up and kill your family member in your house. No, it happen in Baltimore City too, in United States of America. People get killed in front of they family for no reason. It happen here too.”

The Beating of Abdul Salaam by “Violent Repeat Officers” of the Baltimore Police Department’s “Special Enforcement Section”

July 01, 2013 — Abdul Salaam was profiled by two Baltimore Police officers from the Special Enforcement Section, an undercover unit formerly known as the Violent Crimes Impact Section — renamed (or according to Police Commissioner Anthony Batts “dismantled”) after a series of controversial incidents involving officers in the unit.

Salaam was pulling up to his home when the unmarked Baltimore police vehicle turned on its lights behind him. The officers inside — Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Ruiz — immediately approached the vehicle and attempted to remove Salaam from his seat by force. From the point in which he was stopped until the point he was placed in the “paddy-wagon,” the officers had violated his rights on various levels: being pulled-over without reasonable suspicion, being searched without consent or probable-cause, demonstrating excessive force, both before and after cuffs had been applied, on both his hands and legs.

The entire incident was witnessed by over a dozen witnesses, from youth to elderly who were out front of their homes when the police initiated the stop. Many of the witnesses recorded the incident, the content in this video is only from one.

According to documents, the officers said they pulled Salaam over because he did not have his seat-belt on, however Salaam asserts that he did and that in fact when the officers initially attempted to remove him from his vehicle by force, he was being held back by his seat-belt.

Even if it were a seat-belt violation, it does not give the officers any excuse to ask to search his vehicle.

The officers did not find anything illegal after they themselves illegally searched Salaam’s vehicle.

All charges on Abdul Salaam were dropped later.

However no actions were taken against any of the officers involved. In fact, little over two weeks later, two of the officers mentioned above — Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Ruiz — were involved in another similar incident.

On July 18, 2013, Chapman and Ruiz — who should have been on administrative-leave — were driving around in another residential neighborhood nearby, this time pulling over a man named Tyrone West.

According to Police, the officers initiated the stop because West had conducted an illegal maneuver and then was driving suspiciously slow — (in a residential neighborhood, with stop signs every block). According to Chapman and Ruiz, they approached the vehicle and asked for permission to search the vehicle, to which the driver and passenger consented (again, with no reasonable suspicion).

However according to neighbors who witnessed the incident, the officers immediately approached the vehicle and pulled West out by his dreadlocks — a scene that sounds very similar to the one that had unfolded little over two weeks prior.

According to witnesses, West was attempting to defend himself from aggressive officers who had gone beyond the point of their authority. By the end of the encounter, at least ten Baltimore police officers stood around a motionless body that they had beaten to death.

The Baltimore Sun has been aware of Salaam’s experience since November, and has even bee in possession of official documents regarding his case since mid-January of 2014, but has yet to publish anything regarding Salaam — or the connection he has with West.

More to come…

Baltimore Public Safety Collective Seeks Answers from Police Commissioner

Below is the text of a letter that members of the Baltimore Public Safety Collective will deliver to Commissioner Batts at the April 10 BPD/Mayoral town hall, to be held at the American Brewery building, 1701 N. Gay Street, at 7 p.m.  The Eclipse will document any response (or non-response) received by the Collective and post a wrap-up of tonight’s and any future town hall.


 

Dear Commissioner Batts:

We are a collective of Baltimoreans formed out of great concern for the safety of the residents of and visitors to our city, particularly those who have been or are at risk of becoming victims of violence at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department.  We were pleased to learn that you and the Department will be holding town halls to address the serious problem of violence in Baltimore and of your intent to engage the community in making the city safer.

As you know, some of the most serious recent violent acts have been committed by your officers.  We share your concern about street gangs; however, while most of us and most Baltimoreans in general will have little or no interaction with gang members, nearly everyone in the City will at some time or another encounter police officers.  Therefore it is critical that the Department and the community immediately identify and work to eliminate the causes of officers’ violent behavior.

While we plan to do our part by continuing to attend the town halls, we thought it would be appropriate to lay out our questions in writing below, so that we do not take up inordinate amounts of speaking time at these district-specific meetings that should be used by those living in each district to address their neighborhoods’ discrete concerns.

  • Please provide or instruct us on where to obtain a comprehensive list of victims killed or injured in police shootings and beatings in Baltimore City since 2004.
  • You have publicly stated that you do not have the authority to suspend officers.  Who does have this authority?
  • How can citizens access information about and track the progress of internal BPD investigations and disciplinary procedures?
  • How many officers are currently out on suspension or are on some type of restricted duty?
  • You have said in recent Twitter town halls that only 30% of BPD officers live in Baltimore City.  Of the 30%, how many live in the districts to which they are assigned?  Beyond directing employees to state homeownership incentives, what is the Department’s plan to increase the percentage of City residents on its payroll?  Do you and other high-ranking Department officials live inside the City?  How many of 2014’s police-involved shootings have been committed by non-resident officers?
  • What is the Department’s explanation for the high number of police-involved shootings so far this calendar year?
  • What is the expected timeline for the hiring of a permanent academy director?  Will that person be give a mandate to eliminate or decrease violence committed by officers?

We would appreciate a written response to this letter by April 30, 2014.  We look forward to your response and thank you in advance for your cooperation as we address the crisis of police violence in Baltimore.