December 11, 2017
Like the propaganda campaign surrounding his death, Detective Sean Suiter’s grave was empty. There was nothing there.
The massive procession that carried Suiter’s body from the Mount Pleasant Church in East Baltimore to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens cemetery in Timonium on Nov. 29 was a powerful display of support and unity for the troubled Baltimore Police Department.
“Suiter gave, and the Baltimore Police Department gives each and every day,” Commissioner Kevin Davis said to the crowd in the 3,000 square foot sanctuary at Mount Pleasant. “It’s time for the local and national narrative to start reflecting that reality.”
For the current BPD, the narrative is all-important.
“In America, in this free society, our democracy, police—and I don’t mean to sound like I’m teaching a civics class here—but policing in America is special,” Davis said the week before the memorial at a press conference justifying a lock-down of Baltimore’s Harlem Park neighborhood where Suiter was shot. “Any loss of life is unacceptable, but society says in particular a murder of a police officer is unacceptable.”
“As homicide detectives, we go through the valley, we stay in the valley, and we bring those out of the valley who are sometimes lost,” Jonathan Jones, Suiter’s partner, who was not with him on the day he was shot, said at Mount Pleasant Church, extrapolating on the Psalm that proclaims, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
This idea that police enter into the valley voluntarily—with the ever-present chance of not returning—for the sake of the public, is part of what caused people to pull over on the side of the road and salute the passing procession; it was a phenomenon highlighted by videos tweeted by the BPD’s Director of Communications T.J. Smith.
“Drivers were urged to avoid northbound I-95 and I-895, as well as southbound I-95 approaching I-695 on the northeast corner. There were major delays on the outer loop of I-695 between I-95 and I-83 and I-83 between I-695 and Padonia Road between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.,” ABC2 News dutifully reported to its audience.
Even though I missed the procession there—I was in D.C. covering the trials of some of the people arrested en masse on Inauguration Day—a source from the department said I should go and see the grave.
As I drove through the bright late-autumn Saturday afternoon along the procession route, I thought about the difference between the road closures there and those in Harlem Park. Both possessed a military affect: The highway funeral with salutes and flapping flags was a parade; Harlem Park, with its crime scene tape, ID checks, battering rams, and expanded perimeter was an occupation.
Various contradictory and improbably coincidental facts surround Suiter’s death. He wasn’t with his regular partner that day. That partner called 911 instead of using his police radio. The police car that took him to Shock Trauma crashed. Suiter was shot with his own gun. He was connected with federally indicted members of Gun Trace Task Force and was supposed to testify against them. No one has come forward, despite a $215,000 reward. It is the longest the city has ever gone without solving the murder of a cop. There have been no leads.
All of this created an atmosphere of conspiracy and a flurry of rumors that swirled like dead leaves through the department and the streets. And the cop rumors and street rumors overlapped. It was another cop, half the people said. It was a suicide, contended others.
As I pulled into the 75-acre cemetery, the shadows were long and heavy in the late afternoon. According to its website, Dulaney Valley’s Fallen Heroes garden has more than 300 spaces that they provide, along with mortuary services, to the families of fallen cops, firefighters, correctional officers, and paramedics, free of charge.
The graves seemed endless, stretching out on rolling hill after rolling hill, fountains splashing, catching the falling autumn light.
But I could not find a grave for Suiter.
I called the cemetery’s office on the phone. When I told the woman on the phone that I was looking for Det. Suiter’s grave, she paused and told me to hold on. When she came back on the line, her voice was harried.
“It was too late to make the burial,” she said. “It was dark.”
Three days had passed since Det. Suiter’s funeral on Nov. 29. On Dec. 1, in a press conference announcing that he wanted the FBI to take over the case, Commissioner Davis claimed that he had waited to make the FBI request until “after the funeral, after we buried Sean.”
I was confused. I wrote to the police department’s public information officer, T.J. Smith.
“We don’t handle the burial or anything after the fact,” Smith wrote in response to questions about where Det. Suiter was buried. “They are family decisions. Period.”
The department—and news coverage—had certainly made it seem that he had already been buried. So it didn’t seem like it would be a big deal. I’d ask a question and they would clarify.
But Smith’s response to my questions wasn’t straightforward.
“I certainly hope and pray for your dear sole [sic] that you were truthfully there to pay your respects,” Smith wrote. It was not the first time Smith had chastised me and other members of the press for asking questions.
When I asked if Davis was aware that Suiter had not been buried—at least not at Dulaney Valley, Smith condemned the questions outright.
“I refuse to entertain these baseless conspiracy questions,” Smith wrote. “It’s a memorial there and the family can make other decisions after a police Officer’s interment is performed.”
Interment means burial, so it is unclear what Smith was trying to say—and he refused to clarify. Certainly he didn’t mean that he had been buried and then they made other arrangements, so it is likely that he meant after the memorial service the family could make other decisions about where an officer’s interment is performed.
The lack of clarification in this, as throughout this case, has not stopped “conspiracy questions”; rather, it has created them.
What if someone drove down from some other state to pay respects and found that Suiter wasn’t buried there?
On Dec. 4, two days after my visit, Dulaney Valley said that Suiter still had not been buried there yet, but they assured me that he would be. Finally, on Tuesday, Dec. 5 Mary Auld, who does PR for the cemetery and had been in direct contact with the family, said that they were waiting for the family before securing Suiter’s remains in the Fallen Heroes garden.
“It was their wish that he be cremated,” she said.
It was that simple. He had been cremated. Just admitting that the family made other arrangements following the ceremony would have prevented any confusion. Why had Smith been so evasive?
Some of the reasons may not be specific to Davis or Smith, but part of the culture of policing as it has developed along with technology over the last decades.
“I think this is a cultural thing that has developed over the decades, over the years and where you’ve been somewhat closed lipped and secretive about investigations, about personnel issues, about complaints filed against police officers, about a number of things, that tends to carry over into just about every aspect of policing when it shouldn’t,” said Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore and Maryland State police officer and executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership.
A source close to the department, who did not want to be named so he could speak freely, was more direct—and more specific.
He said that Davis pushed for the high-profile funeral.
“He did it to gain sympathy for the department,” the source said, adding that it is “out of the Batts playbook,” referring to Davis’ predecessor Anthony Batts, who was fired after a Fraternal Order of Police after-action report on the Baltimore Uprising was released.
It may have been Batts’ playbook, but Davis owns it now. And like Batts, he may be obsessed with PR because he has had to learn how to deal with scandals.
On Sept. 4, 1999, Davis and other Prince George’s County officers pulled up beside a man, Brian Romjue, driving a car outside of their jurisdiction and told him that they wanted to talk to him. A deputy commissioner, it was later determined, had ordered them to make the young man tell them where the niece of a commander was. During the five hours in which they detained him, one of the officers, Sergeant Joseph McCann, threatened to break Romjue’s kneecaps, according to court testimony, and Davis, Romjue said, banged his head.
A jury awarded Romjue $90,000, while rejecting the idea that the officers used excessive force.
“If Kevin Davis is going to do stuff like that, what the fuck you think he is going to do at the top?” asked former deputy commissioner and interim commissioner Tony Barksdale. “He played this ‘I learned my lesson, I didn’t know it was an unlawful order.’ One of the earliest things you learn is you don’t follow an unlawful order in policing.”
Davis has often repeated the idea that he learned his lesson from the incident. But the lesson may have been in managing the message.
Even before he officially took over as commissioner, Davis hired T.J. Smith, who had worked with Davis in Anne Arundel County, where Davis had served as chief before coming into the Batts administration as deputy commissioner in Jan. 2015. Smith was offered $160,000 to take over as the department’s spokesperson.
City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young, who made $110,000, took issue with Smith’s salary, saying maybe he should quit his job and apply for Smith’s. But, as the Sun reported at the time, City Solicitor George Nilson told Young that “Smith comes highly recommended, and the communications job is crucial following April’s unrest.”
“April’s unrest” made propaganda even more important than it had been. On Twitter, after he was tapped for the job, Smith pledged transparency. “My goal is simple: Be transparent, Highlight the phenomenal work that goes on everyday in the city, gain the trust and respect of the citizens of Baltimore and the BPD through effective and honest communication,” he wrote.
As he posted this tweet, the department was already engaging in a plan to secretly spy on the entire city. Just days before Davis was confirmed, the department made an agreement to work with a private company that would fly a small surveillance plane over the city, out of sight, and record 32 square miles at a time, according to emails obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request.
And although BPD began using the Persistent Surveillance technology in Jan. 2016, no one knew about it, including the mayor or the City Council.
Ross McNutt, who runs Persistent Surveillance, had argued that the program only really worked if the public knew about it. It was not only investigative but preventative.
City government along with the public discovered the program when the publication of a Bloomberg Businessweek story, “Secret Cameras Record Baltimore’s Every Move From Above” in August 2016 forced their hand. Smith insisted that it was not really a secret program. It was just that no one knew about it.
“This isn’t some nefarious intrusion on someone’s privacy, it’s anything but that,” Davis said on Oct. 7 2016 at a press conference pertaining to Fleet Week—the last time the spy plane would be used by BPD. “Something being a secret versus something not yet being disclosed or vetted with the community, I think those are different things. I never intended to surprise anyone by this.”
In 2016, Davis also hired Joe McCann, who was involved in the P.G. County case, and appointed him to head up a new “quality control” division.
Earlier this year, when body-worn cameras appeared to capture BPD officers planting drugs, Davis claimed they were “re-creating” a legitimate discovery of drugs, and accused the public and the press of acting irresponsibly.
“I think it’s irresponsible to jump to the conclusion that these officers were engaged in criminal conduct,” Davis said. “Their credibility is in question because of a moment of time that is either captured or not captured on body-worn camera.”
Somehow, Davis survived these scandals, even as the murder rate continued to rise. Nearly 1,000 people have been murdered since he took office. But he could afford to gamble. Along with his own $200,000 a year salary, his contract had a provision that would give him $150,000 severance.
Now, in the wake of the Gun Trace Task Force and the lockdown of Harlem Park, it seems inevitable that the city will soon write that check.
Det. Suiter was shot sometime around 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 15 on the 900 block of Bennett Place in an alley. A few hours later, Davis stood in front of Shock Trauma with Mayor Catherine Pugh and State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. He did not say that Suiter was scheduled to testify against indicted members of the Gun Trace Task Force and he did not tell the public that the police car driving Suiter to Shock Trauma crashed on its way there from Harlem Park. He did not name Suiter, whom he said had two children. Later reports indicate that Suiter had five children. But he did squarely place the blame on a member of the community.
“He observed a man engaged in suspicious behaviors,” Davis said of Suiter. “Our 18-year homicide veteran approached this man to engage him in conversation. Our detective was shot in the head.”
“Davis clearly said that he was in a brief violent struggle with an unknown black suspect with a black and white jacket. You’ve locked down Harlem Park, man, you’ve locked them down and you have not released a sketch,” Tony Barksdale said. “Just show me a fucking sketch of the black and white jacket. If there’s a black and white jacket, don’t you think there’d be somebody in that neighborhood who’d say ‘Oh yeah such and such wears that jacket,’ even after being treated that way. Somebody might talk.”
Instead, officers and cadets occupied the neighborhood, checking IDs and knocking on doors, especially of vacants. One woman who lived in the neighborhood said that when she first walked outside she saw a line of men on their knees on the street, hands on their heads.
“I think that’s the expectation of the community,” Smith said. “Vacant homes are blocked and obstructed where they need to be open. That’s what we have to do. I think the community wants to know that a killer of a police officer is not holed up in a vacant home.”
The people in the community had a vastly different view of their expectations. At a community meeting with the court-ordered team set up to monitor the consent decree between the BPD and the Department of Justice at Frederick Douglass High School, a 21-year teaching veteran implored the team to take action before another community is “held hostage.”
“We are asking for legal protection from our police department,” she said.
Two days later, at a Civilian Review Board meeting in Harlem Park, people placed the blame squarely on the commissioner.
“We got to go after the people who gave the orders, because the police officers on the front line just don’t decide to cordon off a city and be assigned to one area,” one woman said. “They don’t make those decisions. This came from the police commissioner and that’s where we have to start it.”
“If the commissioner’s responsible, that he’s making the final call, then maybe the laws will be changed later, that somehow we would have to go over his head, because he’s defending the criminal violations,” another said.
“I think overall, there’s a policy issue about whether or not this was constitutional behavior,” Jill Carter, who runs the city’s Office of Civil Rights, told the Real News, calling the cordoning off of the neighborhood an “extremely radical act.”
The ACLU demanded “a clear explanation from the City as to why this unprecedented action has been taken, what rules are being enforced, and why it is lawful.”
Instead of explaining why the lockdown was lawful—it would be easy to cite a specific law—Davis turned the death of an officer and the feelings of his family into a rationale, a state of exception that superseded the rights of the citizens and vilified those who questioned him.
“I would much rather endure some predictive criticism from the ACLU and others about that decision, than endure a conversation with Detective Suiter’s wife about why we didn’t do everything we possibly could do to recover evidence and identify the person who murdered her husband,” Davis said.
Then, in a news dump at 5 p.m. on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Davis said that Suiter was scheduled to testify against fellow cops from the Gun Trace Task Force who had been indicted on federal racketeering and other charges.
It was a week after Suiter’s death and Davis said he had “just” been informed of the testimony.
“Whenever he was scheduled, a summons would be generated,” said Barksdale, who doubted Davis’ account. “When I had federal grand jury I was called by the chief of legal to come sign for my fucking summons. At some point the summons reached Suiter. They schedule you for this shit.”
Acting U.S. Attorney Steve Schenning later confirmed that Davis was informed of the testimony on Nov. 16, the day after Suiter’s shooting, on the day he died.
On Dec. 2, Davis asked FBI Director Christopher Wray to take over the case, all but accusing the Feds of not sharing information with the department. “I am growing increasingly uncomfortable that my homicide detectives do not know all the facts known to FBI or USAO that could, if revealed to us, assist in furthering this murder investigation,” he wrote.
“Suiter had something to say and I get a feeling it was something advantageous to the Feds for making a bigger case,” Barksdale said. “I think the FBI was smart to get a little distance, if they didn’t want BPD to know.”
Now, nearly a month after Suiter’s death and more than a week since Davis’ request, the FBI still had not responded and Baltimore still had no answers as to why Davis shut down Harlem Park if he knew about the testimony.
The attempt to cordon off the neighborhood never made sense. But it was even more puzzling when I saw the actual crime scene after the barricade was lifted.
I rode over there with my colleague Eze Jackson. Eze grew up a few blocks away and we walked around at the corner of Bennett Place and Schroeder Street. There were two striking things about the alley: There were no windows facing into the alley from the three buildings immediately around it, and there were numerous cuts leading out of it. If the assailant went to the right, toward Franklin Street and through the next cut, he would have gone in three different directions and easily escaped the neighborhood.
“If you know those alleys you can get away from the police easily,” Eze said. “That’s what we did growing up, cut through all those alleys to get away from the cops.”
We walked down to the end of the block where there was a corner store with a camera. I asked the man behind the thick glass inside if the camera captured all the way up to the entrance to the alley where Suiter was shot. He said it did but that he didn’t see the tape before BPD came and got it. “ATF has it now,” he said.
“We have the tape,” wrote Smith when I asked.
But if the camera showed the other man with Suiter, as police have claimed, it should also have shown Suiter enter the alley. And perhaps the man in black and white. There should be some answers about the need to shut down the community, even if there are none about what happened to Suiter.
But other than the discomfort of talking to Suiter’s widow, Davis has still failed to give a reason for the closure of the neighborhood.
Davis has condemned the kind of corner-clearing drug enforcement that led to mass incarceration. But his critics say his desire to get guns off the streets has led to the same abuses. The Gun Trace Task Force began as an elite team designed to trace guns used in violent crimes and ended as a violent criminal organization within the police department.
Feds indicted seven members of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force on March 1, 2017, but new charges brought on Nov. 30 show that in 2010, Suiter was working with Det. Wayne Jenkins and Officer Ryan Guinn. In the 2010 statement of charges, Jenkins wrote that he saw a man named Brent Matthews approaching a car with “an unknown amount of currency.” Jenkins and Suiter blocked the car in. Jenkins and Det. Ryan Guinn approached the car. According to Jenkins, the man in the car, Umar Burley, drove away and the officers followed him.
Burley crashed into another car. “Detective Suiter . . . recovered a total of 32 grams of suspected heroin laying on the passenger side of the floorboard,” the statement of probable cause reads.
“There were no drugs in the car driven by U.B. prior to the crash,” the federal indictment reads.
Jenkins called a sergeant who had the drugs in his car to come and give Jenkins and another officer about an ounce of heroin to plant in the car, according to the charging documents. The sergeant has not been identified.
Suiter, who found the drugs in the 2010 case, has been painted as “clueless,” maybe even innocent.
“What Jenkins did was set up officer number one to find the drugs and recover the drugs that Jenkins himself had planted,” Davis said at a press conference. “Det. Suiter was used; he was Officer Suiter at the time. He was used and put in a position where he unwittingly recovered drugs that had been planted by another police officer.”
But many people think that it is Davis who is using Suiter, constantly making his sacrifice the sacrifice of the department.
“Davis is NOT doing this for the family, the investigation or the Department..he is doing it for himself…and trust me..it is going to explode in his face,” Mark Tomlin, a former homicide detective, wrote on Twitter.
Even if it does not explode in his face, the commissioner could learn from this uproar. The attitude that Neill Franklin talked about—how police are secretive about everything—can translate itself into the PR machine of Davis and Smith, but it can also manifest itself as planting drugs in someone’s car to cover up the fact that you chased them and caused a wreck in which someone lost a life.
According to Barksdale, a crisis like that presented by Gun Trace Task Force isn’t the time to try to hide the department’s dirt.
“You can’t let incidents like GTTF go and just go on. You have to slow down and say, ‘I am going to be pushing so hard looking for more individuals like this,’” he said. “Get with the FBI and say, ‘Let’s wire up houses, let’s wire up cars, let’s test these squads that are out there. Let’s boost our integrity stings 100 percent.’”
Barksdale says that the department should bring in somebody who would test the department like this and straighten it up, a “a hard-hitting, don’t-you-fuck-around-or-I’m gonna-be-sure-that-you’re-jailed commissioner.”
“Instead they hold on to this guy, and it’s deadly for Baltimore City,” he said.
But no one can imagine that Davis has long.
A week after my first visit, I returned to the Fallen Heroes monument at Dulaney Valley. My boots crunched the season’s first snow as I walked around looking at the graves of police officers who have died in the line of duty.
There was still no grave for Suiter, still nothing there.
Photos credits: Tedd Henn, the Fallen Heroes monument; Baynard Woods, Commissioner Kevin Davis and T.J. Smith; Tedd Henn, Harlem Park lockdown; Baynard Woods, cameras near the scene of the shooting; Tedd Henn, makeshift memorial at the murder site.