Police Tragedy, Police State: Detective killed in Harlem Park and the community is put on lockdown

Baltimore police search a home near the site of where Det. Suiter was shot. Photo by J.M. Giordano.

Just a few hours after a Baltimore Police officer was shot in the head around 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 15, cops swarm around some vacants on the 900 block of Bennett Place—the shooter may be inside one of them, some people say, but residents of Harlem Park just want to get into their homes. This crime scene isn’t going to let that happen.

“Big-ass crime scene right there,” one resident declares, then puts his phone to his ear and tries to duck under the yellow police tape casual-like. He’s stopped and told to go another way.

Another gets into it with the police. He’s trying to get to his bus and starts to cut across Schroeder Street near the scene of the shooting to ensure he doesn’t miss it.

“Get out of my motherfuckin’ space, fuck you mean? I don’t got to do shit. You being a bitch about it,” he yells. Police nearby tense up except for the one being berated—he gently gets the man on the other side of the tape.

“They’re not letting people go in, I got told around 5:15, I had my I.D. and everything ready,” a woman who just got off work says. “I just want to go inside, shut the door, and not come back out.”

This isn’t long after the shooting of Det. Sean Suiter, but Harlem Park already knows what’s up and what’s about to happen. This is different than all the other shootings that happen near here. There’s little lip service paid to the shot cop here, only frustration and fear (this is why the Beat has decided not to identify any of the residents we spoke to, even those willing to give their names—most who didn’t give their names said they were either afraid of drug dealers, cops, or both).

Residents say they have requested blue light cameras be placed on the block—an Open Baltimore map shows the closest one is about five blocks away. There have been 11 other homicides on this block since 2013.

Not long after Det. Suiter was shot and not too far away from Harlem Park, there was a car accident involving a cop car over on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, now closed. There’s a sense that the city may once again totally fall apart. It would later be revealed that the police vehicle in the accident was driven by Suiter’s partner, who was taking him to the hospital.

Commissioner Kevin Davis, clearly rattled in the many tough press conferences he’s had to give—the night of the shooting he accidentally calls Suiter’s shooter a “killer” before Suiter is declared dead—refuses to explain why or how Suiter was taken in a car instead of an ambulance and says he won’t “Monday morning quarterback” the situation. Emails to the police about standard operating procedure for transporting wounded police officers were not adequately answered (“Not aware of any policies that would dictate transporting an injured officer or not in an emergency vehicle,” BPD spokesperson T.J. Smith writes over email).

According to police, Suiter and his partner were investigating a homicide in the area, and he was shot after observing “suspicious activity” and approaching a suspect. Police also say that Suiter’s gun was fired three times and that he may have been shot with his own gun.

On Thursday, Nov. 16, at an afternoon press conference, Commissioner Davis announces that Det. Sean Suiter—18 years on the force, a veteran, a father of five, 43 years old—is dead.

By the weekend, the reward for information on Suiter’s killer reaches $215,000.

Harlem Park, meanwhile, is on lockdown. Lines of police officers walk the streets and knock on doors for information and the crime scene stays sprawling. Police search Harlem Park residents and pat them down. Mail doesn’t arrive, kids miss school, no one is outside except for cops, and the same people who asked not to have their names in this story because they’re scared of dealers and cops must show their identification whenever the cops ask for it.

“It’s still a very active crime scene in that we’re looking for evidence. Forensic evidence. We’re knocking on doors, two three times, looking for witnesses whether it’s an eyewitness or an ear witness,” Commissioner Davis tells the Beat on Nov. 16. “So it’s still a very active scene. Our police academy class was out there this morning, they’re looking for the smallest bits of evidence that can help us solve this case.”

Around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, three days after the shooting, two detectives lift up the manhole covers on Schroeder Street not far from Bennett Place and look inside. They’re outside the yellow tape marking off the crime scene, so a few members of activist group Baltimore Bloc observe them closely—it all has echoes of the curfew during the uprising, and so the police should be observed. A pissed-off cop tells Bloc and Beat reporters they cannot cross the street, though the yellow tape doesn’t begin until after you cross the street. He sarcastically offers to move the tape across the street if it would make it clearer for everybody.

Residents who walk up to the yellow tape show ID or wave a yellow piece of paper around and the police let them through. One man pulls his car closely to cop cars, parks, shakes his yellow paper, dashes into his house, and comes back out with a big bag so he can leave for the next few days and avoid this altogether.

A hashtag “#FreeWestBaltimore” darts around Baltimore Twitter thanks to Baltimore Bloc, who observed the police Saturday night and Sunday night, spreading the word about what is essentially an occupation.

Erricka Bridgeford, the most public face of Baltimore Ceasefire who has been practicing the act of “pouring light into concrete” and meditatively standing where people in Baltimore have been killed, intended to do the same for Det. Suiter, but can’t get to the location because of the lockdown.

Once it’s no longer a crime scene, she’ll show up and mourn.

“This particular incident has put their community on lock down for days because of the investigation,” Bridgeford says. “This space and these people have experienced ‘more than usual’ trauma.”

As Harlem Park residents show their papers to police and are occasionally searched and patted down before they can proceed, Commissioner Davis addresses 500 or so Baltimoreans in Locust Point, part of a vigil for Alex Wroblewski, a bartender murdered during a robbery on Nov. 14.

“Your police department, I promise you, will work with you hand in hand until we get there. I feel every anxiety, every frustration that you do, my heart breaks like yours does,” Davis tells the crowd. “You’re here for a reason. Stay. Fight. Work harder. Work with us.”

On Sunday, Nov. 19, David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, released a statement about the Harlem Park lockdown.

“The ACLU is concerned about the police cordon that is being imposed on the Harlem Park neighborhood, following an interaction that resulted in the tragic death of a Baltimore homicide detective,” Rocah’s statement reads in part. “The residents of Baltimore, and, in particular, the residents of the affected community, deserve 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. The need to secure a crime scene from contamination to preserve evidence does not, on its face, explain the wide area to which access has been restricted for days after the incident.”

The next day, Monday, Nov. 20, Davis says at a press conference that the perimeter around the crime scene is open, but that the direct area where Suiter was shot remains closed. He also addresses concerns about the Harlem Park lockdown.

“I would much rather endure some predicted criticisms from the ACLU and others about that decision than endure a conversation with Det. 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, a Baltimore Police officer,” Davis says.

Additional reporting by Lisa Snowden-McCray.

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