Baltimore’s police commissioner has apologized for the department’s six-day lockdown of the city’s Harlem Park section following a detective’s 2017 shooting death, saying the controversial law enforcement action was grossly improper and damaged the public’s trust, according to attorneys for four residents of the largely Black neighborhood.
Michael S. Harrison’s apology accompanied the city’s settlement of a federal lawsuit the four residents filed in November 2019, alleging the Baltimore Police Department violated their constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures as officers routinely stopped them and insisted on proof of residency during the investigation of Sean Suiter’s Nov. 15, 2017, shooting and death the following day.
The four residents will be paid $24,000 each under the settlement and the BPD pledged to adopt procedures to prevent a similar lockdown from recurring, the plaintiffs’ attorneys stated late Monday afternoon.
“On behalf of the City of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department, I would like to express our sincere regret and apology for the disruptive events that you and your family experienced as a result of the prolonged police perimeter in the Harlem Park neighborhood” from Nov. 15 to Nov. 20, 2017, Harrison wrote in the letter released by the plaintiffs.
“Amid the investigation of the tragic death of Detective Sean Suiter, the BPD men and women tasked with maintaining the crime scene perimeter were not guided by adequate supervision to reinforce constitutional requirements for stops and searches,” added Harrison, who was neither commissioner nor a Baltimore police officer at the time.
“The result was a protracted police presence that was not aligned with any national best practice for investigations nor any true community policing model,” Harrison wrote. “I am deeply saddened and troubled that these events have shaken your faith and trust in the police who are sworn to serve and protect the city’s residents, and that you feel a diminished sense of comfort and security, to which all Baltimore City residents are entitled.”
The police investigation and alleged constitutional violations occurred when Kevin Davis was commissioner. Multiple investigations have called Suiter’s death a suicide.
“We are pleased to have reached a mutually agreeable resolution that supports the rebuilding of trust between BPD and the Harlem Park neighborhood,” Baltimore Solicitor James L. “Jim” Shea, the city’s chief attorney, said Tuesday.
Under the settlement, the BPD will adopt procedures prohibiting officers from questioning or seeking identification from residents or guests going to or coming from their homes within a crime scene boundary. Officers, however, may escort them to preserve the integrity of the crime scene, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
In addition, crime scene boundaries and durations “must be tied to the nature and facts of the crime” and residential searches must be completed within four hours absent extraordinary circumstances.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the law firm Crowell & Moring LLP in Washington, who both represented the plaintiffs, hailed the settlement.
“What happened in Harlem Park needed to be challenged,” David Rocah, senior attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said in a statement announcing the settlement. “It was a flagrant violation of law, and it is not enough for the city to say, ‘Whoops, our bad, we’ll do better next time.”
Dan Wolff, a partner at Crowell & Moring, called the settlement “an important vindication of rights” for all Harlem Park residents.
According to the now-settled lawsuit, police locked down a six-square-block area in the community where Suiter was fatally shot and subjected all residents to stops and questioning. People needed permission to enter and leave their homes, nonresidents were not allowed inside the area and officers generally required people to show identification and questioned them about their identities and movements, stated the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
One of the plaintiffs, resident Lauren Holmes, claimed she was returning to her home the night of Suiter’s shooting and was stopped on her way by police who demanded proof she lived there. Holmes said she was unable to take her children to school the next day because police in front of her house would not let her leave.
Nicole Lee, another plaintiff, claimed she had trouble returning to the neighborhood the night of the shooting and her son’s bus could not bring him home from his after-school program for students with autism. He had been returned to his school and a family member took him to a friend’s home outside Harlem Park for the night, according to the complaint.
Juaqueta Bullock said she was at her daughter’s track practice when the shooting occurred and the two were stopped from going home and forced to wait outside the cordon for more than an hour before an officer escorted them home. Police also stopped them when they were leaving and returning to the neighborhood in the ensuing days, the complaint stated.
Luella Lawson said she was home with her daughter and grandchildren when Suiter was shot and was prevented from leaving by police. Lawson was stopped when she attempted to go to work the next morning and was offended when she learned police had done a “warrant check” on her, according to the complaint.
The case is docketed in U.S. District Court as Lauren Holmes et al. v. Baltimore City Police Department et al., 1:19-cv-03392-RDB.