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November 21, 2019

“What Happened in Harlem Park Would Not Have Happened in Roland Park”

BALTIMORE – Determined to win justice and ensure that similar lockdowns never happen again, four residents of Baltimore’s Harlem Park neighborhood today filed a federal court lawsuit against the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) and former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, charging that their state and federal constitutional rights were violated during a six-day, multi-block police lockdown of their neighborhood following the death of Detective Sean Suiter in late 2017. 

During the lockdown, residents of this predominately Black neighborhood were stopped by police, without any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing, any time they came and went from their homes. They were forced to identify themselves and show ID at each stop. And they had their names run through law enforcement databases.

Lauren Holmes, a Harlem Park resident, said: “What happened to ‘Officer Friendly?’ What happened to serve and protect?  You’re not protecting us. It felt like martial law. 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. 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.”

In November 2017, the BPD imposed a virtual police state on Harlem Park residents, following the death of BPD Detective Sean Suiter. BPD and Baltimore officials authorized an unprecedented multi-day, multi-block lockdown. The police operation included a mobile command unit, armored trucks, police tape across each street and sidewalk entering the cordon, armed police posted on every block, alleyway, and corner, and police checkpoints at every intersection. Every resident was stopped and required to show ID any time they left their home, or sought to enter the cordoned area, for days on end, in violation of both their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizures, and in violation of BPD’s own policies requiring “reasonable articulable suspicion” for such stops. The BPD’s actions barring residents to and from their homes, and barring non-residents, also violated their state constitutional right to travel.

Juaqueta Bullock, a Harlem Park resident, said: “That was the worst week ever. 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. At the end of the day, it’s about people getting treated fairly. But I live in a neighborhood where police feel they can do whatever they want.” 

For six days, Harlem Park residents had to carry identification with them at all times, and show identification at checkpoints, and often at their own front doors. They could not leave their homes without being accosted by police officers at their doorstep or at the nearest checkpoint. Their family and friends could not come over without police questioning and permission. Residents could not come home from work without reporting to a police officer. They could not bring their children to and from school without being stopped and questioned by police in front of their children. They could not step outside for any reason without being under surveillance and recorded. At times, some residents were also forced to have police escort them to and from their homes, answer questions about their personal lives, and get permission to go outside. Multiple residents also could not get to or leave their homes during the first or second days of the police lockdown.

Nicole Lee, a Harlem Park resident, said: “I really felt like I was in jail. I didn’t feel like I should have to show my ID every time I come to my own neighborhood. Family couldn’t come over. My son couldn’t come home from school — it was just too much going on.”

The Harlem Park residents’ lawsuit seeks 1) a declaration from the court that their federal and state constitutional rights were violated, 2) a prohibition against BPD ever establishing a similar neighborhood lockdown again, and 3) a court order requiring the BPD to destroy all of the personal information illegally obtained from residents. The plaintiffs also seek compensation for the Police Department’s violation of their civil rights.

Dana Vickers Shelley, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland, said: “We know that what Baltimore Police did in Harlem Park would not have happened in Roland Park. It’s time for unequal policing in Black and white neighborhoods to stop. There must be justice for families in Harlem Park.”

David Rocah, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Maryland said: “What was maintained in Harlem Park was a police state, not a crime scene. The lockdown was illegal and yet the decision to impose and maintain it came from the highest levels of leadership. This legal action by Harlem Park families will demand that the constitutional rights of Black residents be respected and help ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.” 

Lauren Holmes, Nicole Lee, Luella Lawson, and Juaqueta Bullock are represented by Daniel W. Wolff, Astor Heaven, Helen Osun, Siri Rao, and Eli Berns-Zieve of Crowell & Moring LLP, and David Rocah, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. 

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