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Commentaryby Todd Oppenheim9:01 amJun 20, 20200

Ending police brutality also means challenging the courts and prosecutors who condone it

Tragic in-custody deaths happen as part of a continuum that starts with unconstitutional stops and bogus police reports, a Baltimore public defender writes. [OP-ED]

Above: Baltimore Police talk to a resident of Sandtown-Winchester. (J.M. Giordano)

As the country struggles in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we in Baltimore are taking a harder look at a  police department whose misdeeds have continued over the years despite sporadic bursts of national attention and touted reforms.

That examination is long overdue. But we should also scrutinize the roles of other key players in the justice system who condone officers’ misconduct through a rarely recognized pattern:

The same cops offer problematic court testimony regarding unconstitutional interactions with civilians without so much as a reprimand.

As a public defender for 17 years in Baltimore City, I often see it happen. Missteps on the witness stand can snowball into continued misconduct on the street. First it’s assaultive behavior. Ultimately, it can be serious injury or even death at the hands of the offending officer.

Yet many judges and prosecutors are too reluctant to speak up and correct officers.

Justifying Stops

A case in point: Several years ago, while preparing a “Know Your Rights” presentation, I looked for a police report representative of an illegal or questionable stop of a citizen.

Needless to say, such reports are not hard to find. A colleague of mine had a case with a perfect report – concise and full of illegality.

The document contained the “kitchen sink” approach to writing police reports. In other words, throw in every conceivable reason as to why two young African-American males should be stopped while walking in their own neighborhood.

The author of the report, the primary officer, felt that repeatedly looking over one’s shoulder combined with recent unsubstantiated crime in the area provided proper justification for a “field interview.”

Behold: the interview never took effect because, after jumping out of their car, the writer and his partner “smelled marijuana,” which quickly took this encounter to a more serious level.

Skipping pleasantries, the police directly asked the young men if they had “weed.” Despite saying “no” (there was never any marijuana recovered), the cops searched them both.

One of the two allegedly had a handgun in his waistband. He was arrested and charged with a felony offense carrying a mandatory minimum prison sentence. The other was sent on his way.

Ruled Unconstitutional

This was outrageous, but don’t take it from me. A judge found the search of the arrested individual to be unconstitutional.

The police violated the client’s Fourth Amendment rights, she said, and so the state had to dismiss the case. (The outcome was a surprise because most judges allow the “scent of marijuana” as justification for a search – and cops take advantage of it.)

According to my colleague, after the hearing, the judge still praised the main officer for getting the gun off the streets and essentially said, “Better luck next time.”

Kicked and Punched

The story continued to unfold. Later the same week, a Baltimore City civil jury awarded $70,000 to the victim of BPD brutality from a publicized incident from 2013.

The plaintiff, Abdul Salaam, was an African-American youth counselor in his 30s who had just arrived home with his three-year-old son in the car when police ordered him out of his vehicle under false pretenses.

The officer who wrote my “example” report had some prior history – he was one of Salaam’s attackers.

According to Salaam, the cops then threw him on the ground and repeatedly kicked and punched him. Salaam said afterward he felt lucky to be alive.

It just so happens that the officer who wrote my “example” report had some prior history – namely, he was one of Salaam’s attackers. No officers were charged, but Salaam was successful in his civil case.

The state never turned over any of the information regarding the lawsuit against the officers to my colleague prior to the hearing.

Potential evidence like the pending lawsuit is vital to a defense attorney for questioning an officer. Plus the public should know.

Tyrone West Case

Unfortunately, it does not end there. It turns out that less than three weeks after Salaam’s abuse, the same group of officers (including the primary one) were involved in a high-profile police custody death.

Those officers had not been suspended by BPD as it investigated Salaam’s internal affairs complaint.

One evening, the group of cops pulled over Tyrone West, a 44-year-old African-American man, for a traffic violation in the same neighborhood as Salaam’s stop.

After they removed West from the vehicle, he supposedly briefly tried to escape. Witnesses said that once police had West surrounded, they beat him while he lay on the ground.

The officers claim to have recovered a small amount of drugs from West. Contradicting the witnesses, a state medical examiner determined that West died of a heart condition worsened by the “struggle” and the heat of the day.

No officer was charged or disciplined for Mr. West’s death.

The City of Baltimore and State of Maryland eventually reached a $1 million settlement with the West family.

West’s sister, Tawanda Jones withdrew from the case in order to be able to speak out about without the restriction of a non-disclosure agreement.

“If I was to be silent about what happened to my brother, I would probably be in the hospital right now. Talking about it helped me gain strength,” Jones said in 2018.

Since the July 2013 incident, she has held a weekly public vigil, “West Wednesdays,” to call for the officers involved in her brother’s death to be held accountable and to raise the issue on behalf of others.

A Duty to Discipline

When there is no wrongdoing found by the police or the state, the end result is that defense attorneys and the public aren’t made aware of the connection of specific cops to incidents like these.

So our fabled report author continues to work the streets of Baltimore. Perhaps the connection to two prominent cases of police misconduct is a big coincidence.

Illegal police conduct shouldn’t be justified or normalized – even when cops allegedly find a gun or drugs. The Department of Justice’s 2016 report on the Baltimore Police Department found that 26 of 27 street stops, mainly of African-Americans, result in the finding of no criminal activity.

The reality is that most civilian interactions with police will never be litigated. So we desperately need judges to send the message to the police that any constitutional violations are unacceptable – no matter what is allegedly found – because these incidents potentially give rise to much worse abuses.

Prosecutors must also accept their responsibility and do more. They must identify and disclose cops who commit misconduct.

Otherwise, routine malfeasance and “harmless” street stops by law enforcement will inevitably morph into life-threatening outcomes for black citizens in Baltimore.
Todd Oppenheim is a supervising attorney in the Felony Trial Division of the Baltimore City Public Defender’s Office. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. Twitter: @Opp4Justice

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