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ACLU seeks body camera footage from police working Suiter scene

The ACLU of Maryland is requesting body camera footage from officers working the perimeter during the cordon of the Baltimore neighborhood where a police detective was fatally shot last month.

The Baltimore Police Department “restricted pedestrian and vehicle access to multiple streets in the Harlem Park neighborhood” from Nov. 15 to Nov. 21 during the initial investigation in the death of Detective Sean Suiter, according to a news release from the ACLU.

Suiter was shot in the head with his own gun Nov. 15 while investigating a 2016 triple homicide. No arrests have been made as of Thursday.

During the cordon, at least some people entering or leaving the neighborhood were patted down or searched and residents were required to show identification to travel through while non-residents were barred.

The explanation for the cordon was preservation of the crime scene, according to ACLU senior staff attorney David Rocah, who said he is unaware of any similar measures being taken in past investigations.

“The lack of transparency here and the disconnect between the explanation given and the scope of the actions taken is significant and striking in its own regard and I think demands something more,” he said.

Rocah declined to comment on any possible litigation stemming from the cordon.

The ACLU request, filed under the Maryland Public Information Act, seeks all body-worn camera footage from officers working the perimeter of the scene who interacted with civilians, footage of escorts of civilians to and from the cordon, footage of the first 10 minutes of searches of occupied dwellings and logs of footage recording showing body camera usage.

Rocah said the request is the first such sweeping one the ACLU has made the widespread use of body cameras in Baltimore.

“I think it’s also worth remembering that this is the whole reason we have body cameras in the first place,” he added. “The whole reason why there was a demand for body cameras and the reason politicians acceded to that demand was there was an interest in having an unbiased record of police interactions.”

A Baltimore police spokesman said the department is reviewing the request.

Court precedent

In its news release, the ACLU cites a U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit case in which a police cordon imposed in a D.C. neighborhood in 2008 was determined to be unconstitutional.

The checkpoint was challenged by individuals who were denied entry to the neighborhood when they refused to provide certain personal information. The “neighborhood safety zone” was established shortly after a series of violent crimes, including a triple homicide, and the stated purpose was not to make arrests or investigate crimes but to increase protection from violent crime and promote safety by deterring potential violent criminals from entering in cars.

The appellate court held the city’s interest was in “general crime control, not directed to any particular suspicion or a particular crime” and reversed the lower court’s denial of injunctive relief.

Rocah said while there are distinctions between what happened in Washington and what happened in Baltimore, in some respects the checkpoints in Harlem Park were more restrictive.

“I certainly think there are very significant legal questions about the actions taken here and I think the burden is on the police department to explain what was done and why it was done and why it’s legally permissible,” he said.

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