On Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at around 4:36 PM, Baltimore Police Department homicide Detective Sean Suiter suffered a fatal gunshot wound to his head, from his own service weapon, in a vacant lot in the Harlem Park neighborhood in Baltimore.
What followed for residents of Harlem Park was an unprecedented six-day lockdown. BPD initially implemented a six square block cordon (though the boundaries changed over time) and enforced it with a massive armed police operation. The lockdown was indiscriminate, subjecting all of the residents in the cordon to stops and questioning without regard to the lack of any reason to suspect any of them. For the first day, they were essentially prisoners in their own homes.
“It felt like we were trapped inside the house, and outside the house. We couldn’t go anywhere. And if we did, we had to show ID and papers. Family couldn’t come over. Son couldn’t come home— it was just too much going on. Really felt like I was in jail.” - Nicole
During the extreme lockdown, what was maintained was a police state, not a crime scene. BPD officers required residents to obtain police permission to enter and leave their homes and denied anyone else permission to enter. Black residents in Baltimore have endured police abuse and community disinvestment for decades. That history, coupled with the lockdown, created a tense environment of distrust and uncertainty among the residents. The experience of having to show their papers to come and go from their homes made residents feel like second class citizens in their own city. The constitutional rights of Black residents must finally be respected by Baltimore police and leaders.
“Everyone on my block works; we look out for each other. We are all good neighbors to each other. You wouldn’t do this in other neighborhoods. People wouldn’t allow this in their neighborhoods. They wouldn't even begin to think that they could block people out of their homes. Yes, it’s a violation. I know that I shouldn’t have to show my ID. But if I didn’t, I couldn’t get home.” – Lauren
The lockdown caused extraordinary disruption to the daily lives of families in the neighborhood and violated the rights of its residents. The police cannot violate a community’s rights for almost a week and get away with it. Four brave women, Nicole Lee, Luella Lawson, Lauren Holmes, and Juaqueta Bullock, who are all residents of Harlem Park and were directly harmed by the lockdown, are sharing their stories and demanding justice.
ON WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2017
Around 4:30 PM
Lauren was sitting by her window, doing work on her Chromebook. She had plans to go out with her friend for crabs at a local restaurant while her friend’s boyfriend babysat the kids at her house.
Around 4:30 PM
Luella was at home with her grandchildren when they noticed heavy police presence outside. That day was her deceased son’s birthday. He was her only son and they had plans to go out to dinner in his memory. But when they tried to leave their home, they were told by armed BPD officers that they had to remain inside.
Around 4:30 PM
Juaqueta was at her 9-year-old daughter’s track practice.
Around 5:30 PM
Lauren was out with her friend at a local restaurant for their weekly crab night. While she was out, she got a call from her friend’s boyfriend, who was watching the kids, telling her that someone was shot in the neighborhood, and it was all over the news. He called back again to say that when he let the dog out of the back door, SWAT Team officers rushed towards him with guns drawn and told him to get back inside. The kids saw it all and were scared.
“I talk to my kids about things. And it’s unfortunate that I had to explain that we were treated this way because of where we live. The kids remember it; it scared my daughter.” - Lauren
That same day:
Nicole tried to walk home from the hospital, but the street was blocked off. When her brother picked her up to drive her home, the roads all around her house were blocked off too. She stayed with her brother that night, but was concerned about her mother, who was scared and home alone with Nicole’s niece’s one-year old baby and Nicole’s 9-year-old son, Wonye. She was also worried about her son Daeshaun, who was then 15 and has autism. She learned that police blocked his school bus from entering the neighborhood and he couldn’t get home.
“I felt like they really violated our rights, really held us prisoner.” – Nicole
Around 7 PM:
Juaqueta and her daughter were walking home from track practice when they saw the police blockade. The police would not let Juaqueta and her daughter go home. They waited in the cold for well over an hour.
“That was the worst week ever.” - Juaqueta
Later that night:
Nicole’s niece found Daeshaun waiting on a bus at his school and attempted to walk him home. But they were met by an officer at the cordon who told Daeshaun that he wasn’t allowed to go to his house or cross the cordon, even though he told the officer he lived there. The BPD officer who spoke to them said that they couldn’t get through unless they wanted to get shot, which scared Daeshaun (because he interpreted it to mean that the police would shoot them).
After Detective Suiter suffered a gunshot wound to the head, the Baltimore Police Department locked down the Harlem Park neighborhood by setting up a cordon that initially encompassed a six square block area on the first day, and in the days that followed shrank to approximately two blocks. If residents wanted to leave or enter the cordoned area, they were subject to stops, questioning, and demands for identification.
Later that night:
Another officer finally approached Juaqueta and walked her and her daughter home. Juaqueta was extremely frustrated, and she and her daughter were already tired and hungry from being at work and school all day and then at track practice.
“I pay rent. I pay my bills. I pay my taxes, but I live in a neighborhood where they feel they can do whatever they want.” - Juaqueta
Around 10 PM:
Lauren was heading home with her friend from the crab night. Her street was completely blocked off, so Lauren pulled over and told an officer that she lives there. The officer told her that she had to show ID and proof that she lived there. Lauren asked the officers why they were doing this and told them that she’s lived everywhere and knows that they would not do this in another neighborhood. Lauren says, “I know how different places are policed differently.” Lauren felt scared by the heavy BPD officer presence.
“What happened to Officer Friendly? What happened to serve and protect? You’re not protecting us. It felt like martial law.” - Lauren
Nicole spent the night at her brother’s house, talking to her mother on the phone. Her mother was frightened of being home alone with the baby. All Nicole wanted was to get home to be with her mother and the children, to take a shower, and to sleep.
No reasonable police commander could have believed that the crime scene extended beyond the vacant lot where Detective Suiter was found. No reasonable person would believe that a crime scene could encompass at least 100 houses. And no reasonable police commander could have thought it necessary to deny residents beyond the immediate area of the vacant lot where Detective Suiter was found permission to enter or leave their homes.
ON THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2017
The next morning, Nicole tried to get home again, but all of the entry points were blocked off and police were waiving cars away. Nicole went back to her brother’s house. That day, Nicole’s sons missed school. Wonye didn’t have anyone to walk him to school because Nicole’s mom was alone with the baby. Daeshaun had been unable to go home to sleep or shower or change clothes, and was not at his home where the school bus would pick him up.
Luella woke up to get ready for work. She walked outside her home and an officer demanded that she show identification. Luella presented her state-issued ID. The officer wrote down her information, gave her a yellow Citizen/Police Contact Receipt, and then gave her permission to leave her home and go to work. Luella later saw that the receipt indicated that the officer had run a warrant check on her. She felt offended, because she had done nothing wrong and had fully cooperated with the BPD officer. Luella felt like the warrant check showed that the police had painted her as a criminal because of where she lived.
Baltimore Police officers repeatedly told residents – falsely – that the collection of information was just a formality, and that nothing would be done with it. But what BPD did during the lockdown was run law enforcement database checks on people, collecting all of their identifying information, asking intrusive questions, and sharing their information with police investigators.
Lauren drives her kids to school every morning. This morning, the police wouldn’t let them leave the house at all. She tried repeatedly, and they wouldn’t let her go to her car. The kids never made it to school and she didn’t go to work that day.
Nicole, her son, and her brother drove to Harlem Park, and parked the car outside of the cordon. Nicole had her Maryland State ID out, and, the officer waived her through. Finally, they were finally able to go home and be with her family.
That same day:
When Juaqueta went to take her daughter to school, she was stopped and questioned about where they were going and what school her daughter attended. Juaquetta also had to show her ID.
“It was wrong. It was harassment. It doesn’t make us bad because this is where we live at. We’re working women, taking care of our kids, looking out for each other.” – Juaqueta
Nicole left her home to stop by the corner store for food and drinks. A BPD officer stopped Nicole and required her to give the officer her driver’s license so that the officer could record her name, address, driver’s license, number, date of birth, and phone number. The officer gave her a yellow copy of the form they filled out.
Baltimore Police violated their own policies, including clearly documenting reasonable articulable suspicion for an investigative stop, and violated the Fourth Amendment rights of the residents. A Department of Justice report, a consent decree, and complaints from residents have consistently demonstrated that the Baltimore Police Department has a systematic pattern of violating people’s rights. Baltimore City Police and leaders need to know they cannot continue to violate communities’ rights and then do nothing to heal that pain.
ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2019
Once again, Nicole’s son Daeshaun could not get to school because the bus was not allowed to come pick him up. (Due to his autism a school bus picks him up in front of his house.) When Nicole was walking her younger child, Wonye, to school, a BPD officer stopped them and required her to show her ID. On her way back from Wonye’s school, Nicole went to the grocery store and was again stopped at the cordon when she tried to get home with her groceries. This time, the officer who stopped her also went with her as she walked home. The officer stayed out front, watching her as she entered her home until she finally closed the door. Nicole felt like she was a prisoner.
“I didn’t feel like I should have to show my ID every time I come to my own neighborhood.” - Nicole
That same day:
Juaqueta and her child were stopped and questioned on their way to and from school.
“I know that some of my daughter’s friends didn’t make it to school because they live on Bennett Place. - Juaqueta
That same day:
Luella was stopped again both on her way to and from work, and she was required to show her identification in order to be allowed to leave and return home.
“Show your ID” policing in Black neighborhoods is unacceptable. Residents of Harlem Park were forced to show their papers to come and go to and from their homes. Other residents, too, could not get to their homes from school or work, or had family or social events disrupted because visitors could not go to their homes. Still other residents were intimidated into remaining in their own homes during the duration of the lockdown.
THE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED
Lauren was very upset by the lockdown because she thought that the Baltimore Police officers would never have engaged in similar practices in a wealthier or white neighborhood. She was upset that she had to explain to her children that they were all being treated differently because of where they lived. She also thought that the lockdown made no sense, because anyone who had shot Detective Suiter could have left before the cordon was put in place. The experience of having to constantly show identification, or a yellow slip, and get BPD officer permission to come and go from her home made her feel like she was living under martial law.
Luella stayed home that whole weekend because she did not feel free to come and go.
Nicole couldn’t believe she had to keep showing her ID and the yellow slip. And, nearly every time, the police asked her where she lived. She felt like they didn’t believe her. This continued for days, and Nicole continued to feel like they were being held prisoner and that their rights were being violated. Nicole doesn’t even recall leaving her house that weekend.
Although the family had planned to celebrate Thanksgiving at Nicole’s house that year, when Nicole’s mom usually cooks and several family members come over, no one was in the mood to celebrate after the drastic lockdown. There was a sense of pervasive anxiety and mistrust in the community towards the police. Her family from outside the neighborhood didn’t want to come over, and Nicole and her mom didn’t feel like cooking or going anywhere. The family didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving that year.
Juaqueta felt that the repeated Baltimore Police stops and the questioning served no purpose, particularly since the officers said that they were looking for a male suspect, so she could not see any sense in stopping, questioning, and demanding identification from women and young children. She thought that the residents of Harlem Park were being treated differently than people in other neighborhoods, and that the BPD officers simply did not care how their actions affected people in the neighborhood. She also thought it unfair for the police to treat the entire neighborhood as suspects, when there was no basis to do so. The entire experience of the lockdown felt like police harassment to her.
“At the end of the day, it’s about people getting treated fairly.” – Juaqueta