An in-custody death in 2014 raises more concerns about the police department’s ability to investigate itself

Six years ago today, on Aug. 5, 2014, members of the Baltimore Police Department’s Warrant Apprehension Task Force brought a man named Tyree Woodson into the Southwestern District Police Station where he died in the bathroom of a gunshot wound to the head. News reports immediately began to follow the police version of events , alleging that Woodson snuck the gun into the station in a medical boot and shot himself in the head. After over a year of exhaustive reporting, we showed that the story was much more complicated than that. 

This story was published through Democracy in Crisis in partnership with the Baltimore City Paper in 2017. We are republishing it now because it had disappeared from the Baltimore Sun’s City Paper archive and the Baltimore Police Department has never adequately addressed the questions raised here. You can read “What Happened To Tyree Woodson?” in seven chapters below.

A single shot from a Glock .40 caliber pistol rang out from the bathroom of the Southwestern District Police Station in Baltimore on Aug. 5, 2014. Tyree Woodson, a 38-year-old African-American man the police described as a member of a gang, slumped down dead against the wall.

It was summer 2014. More than 100 people had already been murdered that year and then-Commissioner Anthony Batts blamed the spike in crime on the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF). The revelation, in April of 2013, that BGF had almost complete and brazen control over the Baltimore City Detention Center had shocked the entire country–and bolstered Batts’ ideas about gang violence.

It was in this context that police reported that a violent gang member had killed himself in the bathroom of the Southwestern District.

Crammed into our editor’s office for a meeting the next day, the entire City Paper staff was puzzled. It just didn’t make sense. The Baltimore Police Department suspected that Woodson shot himself in the head with a gun he snuck into the station. He had been arrested, they said, for attempted murder. He was very dangerous–and yet, perhaps, he had not been searched. And it was strange that this guy, portrayed as a hardened criminal, would turn the weapon on himself rather than a police officer.

Then-Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez pointed this out himself in his press conference. “I am very grateful that this individual elected to use that weapon on himself and not to engage any other officers or civilians that may have been inside the police station.”

Soon, TV newscasters started suggesting Woodson snuck a gun into the station in a medical boot–which was on his foot because he had been shot several days before.

The police, the coroner, and the State’s Attorney’s Office all concluded that Woodson’s death was a suicide, closing the books on the case.

Woodson’s mother, Verdessa McDougald, and his fiancée, Tahesha White, never believed the that story. McDougald told Charles Anderson, the Force Investigation Team (FIT) detective, that she believed Southwestern District police officers killed her son. But there is no indication that her questions about the case were ever followed up on by investigators. That’s because Anderson only visited McDougald’s home after the investigation was closed. While it was open, investigators took statements almost solely from other police officers.

I know that because I read Anderson’s notes–whatever wasn’t redacted, at least–in the 606 pages that I received from the Baltimore City Police Department through a Maryland Public Information Act request. Something about Woodson’s death would not let me go. His life and death seemed to offer an important look into the way that Baltimore City works–all the ways it can eat up a life and leave the survivors feeling shattered in the aftermath.

Even after spending months looking over all of the available evidence, I am not sure what happened to Tyree Woodson. But it is clear that his death presents an unvarnished look at what happens when police departments investigate their own officers, especially for incidents that occurred within their own stations.

The internal charges against some of the officers charged in the 2015 in-custody death of Freddie Gray show that having outside agencies oversee the investigation of officers may be a better, if still deeply flawed, route to take, because the internal investigation of the officers involved in the death of Tyree Woodson makes it clear that internal investigations often raise as many questions as it answers.