The two men who led the Independent Review Board that examined the Baltimore Police Department’s investigation of and response to Detective Sean Suiter’s death stood by their conclusion that the detective took his own life, while also speaking to the cultural and organizational issues that have permeated the department, at a press conference Wednesday.
“We were given the task and the task was to go where the evidence led,” said James Stewart, the Chairperson of the IRB. He said that each of the conclusions the board drafted were agreed to unanimously.
The IRB’s report is considered new evidence in the case, but it is not the final word in determining how Suiter died. Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle said the information will be reviewed by homicide detectives, and ultimately any change in the classification of how Suiter died would need to be made by the Medical Examiner, who originally ruled the death a homicide.
The evidence the board reviewed was largely the same that homicide detectives have had at their disposal, with two additional assessments highlighted. IRB investigators asked for blood on the inside of Suiter’s shirt sleeve to be analyzed. It was determined it was his, which factored into their assessment of how the gun may have been fired how that would result in blood appearing there.
The board also asked for additional tests to be performed to assess DNA from Suiter that was found in the barrel of his service weapon, which was deemed the murder weapon. To rule out that Suiter’s DNA may have gotten into the barrel through normal cleaning or other operation and remained after the weapon was fired, tests of similar service weapons were conducted after those weapons were fired.
“DNA would only survive with the blow back from the fatal shot, and that is what was still in the barrel,” Stewart staid.
Stewart also highlighted what the board determined to have been an eight-second window in which Suiter would have had to yield his weapon, the fatal shot been fired, and then the suspect disappear before being apprehended by police, who thoroughly swept the area following the shooting.
A point of contention arose during the press conference, as part of Suiter’s involvement in the Gun Trace Task Force investigation was cited potentially factoring into the decision to take his own life. Suiter was set to testify the day after he was shot. Stewart said he was considered a "subject" in the investigation, which is a designation between a witness and a target.
When asked, Stewart and IRB Vice Chairperson James Coldren said they did not speak to Suiter’s wife, Nicole, or his friends and family in assessing his state of mind.
“We did not do any kind of psychological analysis,” Stewart said. “We felt that exceeded the scope of our capability at the time.”
Where the report referred to the GTTF, Detective Daniel Hersl was referenced as pleading guilty. Hersl was actually one of the few officers who proceeded to trial, where he was found guilty. That basic factual error was highlighted as a potential discrepancy that might throw doubt on the IRB’s findings.
Stewart and Coldren remained steadfast in their assessment though.
“We followed the information and we followed the facts,” Coldren said. The IRB did not attempt to surmise what was going on in Suiter’s head at the time of the shooting.
“We can say that we’ve increased the confidence in the finding of the report,” Coldren said.
Beyond examining the investigation into Suiter’s death, the IRB assessed how the police department responded to the incident, particularly the continued lack of implementing an Incident Command System, which creates a standard hierarchy that coordinates response across different agencies or departments during emergency situations.
“Baltimore police must immediately incorporate ICS training,” Stewart said. The training must be incorporated into the police academy so all officers are familiar, and personnel with the rank of sergeant or higher should get additional training. At least two members of each patrol district should be trained as ICS planners.
“This is the sixth report issued to BPD since 2011 recommending effective deployment of ICS in complex policing situations,” the full text of the IRB report released Tuesday reads. “Commanders and Supervisors have consistently failed to implement ICS and professional best practices despite serious professional criticism of BPD’s actions.”
The IRB also cited the department's struggles with maintaining consistent leadership as factors that contribute to the lack of true reform. Stewart and Coldren both said true reform happens over several years, and when leadership turns over frequently, the secondary tier of commanding officers don’t know where things stand and have a hard time implementing new policies and seeing them through.
They also said the frequent shuffling of leadership, coupled with the controversy that has plagued the department brought on by withering community/police relations and scandals, has created “this circling of the wagons approach, so that insulates the department from change,” Coldren said.
As Mayor Catherine Pugh attempts to select the next commissioner, it provides Baltimore a potential opportunity for taking a bold step forward in implementing reform.
“The selection of the next police commissioner is a matter of historic civic importance given the current state of the department,” the IRB report reads. “The Board includes several members with extensive police leadership experience. The Board believes that it is imperative that BPD choose a strong candidate with an established track record for leading comprehensive culture reform and reduction and prevention of crime through constitutional policing.”