On July 18, 2013, Tyrone West left his sister’s house, borrowing her car. He planned to give a friend a ride before picking up his niece from work. Within two hours, West was pulled over by Baltimore City police officers Nicholas David Chapman and Jorge Omar Bernardez-Ruiz. At that point, in a brutal scene eerily similar to the recent murder of Tyre Nichols, eyewitnesses described an unarmed West being pulled from the car by his dreadlocks before more than a dozen officers beat, kicked, punched, tased and pepper sprayed him. West died, and his family learned of his death on an evening news broadcast a few hours later. He was 44 years old.
On July 24, the following Wednesday, his family, led by his sister Tawanda Jones, made the decision to hold a public vigil and protest. Now, nearly 10 years after that first West Wednesday, on Feb. 22, 2023, Jones and the rest of her family will hold the 500th consecutive West Wednesday event to demand accountability for the murder of Tyrone West.
In the last 10 years, Jones has, in many ways, become the heart and soul of the movement to end police violence in Baltimore. She brought the fight for justice to the doors of the Northeast District Police Station, the State’s Attorney’s Office, the medical examiner’s office, City Hall, Morgan State University, and dozens of other locations throughout the city. She has continued through three state’s attorneys and four mayors. Jones and the entire West family have remained focused and determined in this fight they never asked for.
Over the years, West Wednesdays took the form of speak-outs, marches, rallies, and even virtual meetings as the pandemic hit. They have, first and foremost, uplifted West’s name and humanity. Every week the family remembers a loving brother, nephew, uncle, cousin, and father. West was an artist with hopes, dreams, and plans. His family grieves for the decades of his life that were stolen.
The weekly events also offer an open space for community members to listen and speak about the violence they themselves have experienced from Baltimore Police. Passers-by have often heard Jones speak and been moved to share. During the push for accountability, the West family learned about and lifted several stories of others brutalized by the Chapman, Bernardez-Ruiz partnership in the days leading up to West’s murder. These include the case of Abdul Salaam, who, on July 1, 2013, was pulled from his car and beaten with his three-year-old son in the car watching. In 2016, Mr. Salaam won a civil suit against those officers.
West Wednesdays at Morgan State University often led to students speaking about the violence they experienced from Morgan State University Officer David Lewis. Lewis raced to the scene of Tyrone’s murder and joined the other officers that day. Eyewitnesses described Lewis as sitting his weight on Tyrone as he breathed his last breath.
West’s family has also expanded their call for justice and accountability beyond just this case. The common refrain is “justice for Tyrone West. Justice for all victims of police brutality.” In that spirit, they have opened their space to the loved ones of Anthony Anderson, Keith Davis Jr., Donnell Rochester, and other family members and friends of people who are victims of police brutality.
Every aspect of West’s death reveals this guilty system for what it is, but we will highlight one piece. From the early days of their fight, the West family highlighted the role of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. For years, the family disputed an official autopsy that blamed Tyrone’s death on a previously undiagnosed heart condition and the heat of that July day. In an effort to combat that autopsy and force then-State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to reopen the investigation, the West family had his body exhumed and another autopsy performed at their own expense. That autopsy found the cause of Tyrone’s death was “positional asphyxiation.” You may remember that phrase from the trial of George Floyd’s murderer, former Minneapolis Police Officer Derrick Chauvin. What you likely do not know is that one expert Chauvin’s defense called was a former medical examiner named David Fowler. David Fowler was Maryland’s Chief Medical Examiner in 2013 when Tyrone’s autopsy was performed. In October 2022, due to Fowler’s discrediting testimony in the Chauvin trial, former Attorney General Brian Frosh announced a partial review of David Fowler’s cases.
Elected officials across this city know the names Tyrone West and Tawanda Jones. Many candidates for office have approached the West family to offer sympathy and words of encouragement. Some have subsequently been elected. During her successful 2014 campaign for Baltimore State’s Attorney, Mosby promised Jones, her family, and supporters that if Mosby won, she would reopen the investigation into West’s death. Despite using this promise to secure her win, and despite the many reminders, requests, demands, and protests during her years in office, she never reopened the investigation. And now, 500 weeks later, no charges have been brought against even one of the numerous officers involved in this murder. Worse still, none have been fired, and several have received promotions, including Jorge Omar Bernardez-Ruiz, who is now a sergeant.
For 500 weeks, the city and police department have refused to take the West family’s demands for accountability seriously. In 2017, Tyrone’s family settled a civil suit with the city. Tawanda removed herself from the estate and settlement to avoid legal restrictions against speaking about the case publicly and continue her fight to hold the responsible officers accountable. It’s been nearly 300 more weeks, and Tawanda has not relented.
The city owes Tyrone West, Tawanda Jones, and the entire West family so much more than they’ve received. They demand full accountability and nothing less. May we, as a city, finally listen and join the fight to make that happen. Justice for Tyrone West. Justice for all victims of police brutality.