Tyrone West: A Year Later Family Still Seeks Answers

Jul 21, 2014

Family and supporters gathered for a vigil on the one year anniversary of Tyrone West's death in police custody Friday. They released 45 balloons; the number representing the age of West at his death. The vigil took place in the spot where the incident took place in New Northwood.
Credit P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

One year after Tyrone West died while in police custody in Northeast Baltimore, his family continues to accuse law enforcement officials of a cover-up. And the case raises questions about police conduct in some city neighborhoods as an independent review of the incident continues.

The family has staged weekly protests, called West Wednesdays, at sites around the city and held a vigil Friday in the neighborhood where West died to mark the one-year anniversary of the incident. Over the weekend, Payam Sohrabi, of the watchdog group Baltimore Public Safety Collective, unveiled a video called “The Ghost of Tyrone West.” It includes footage of the weekly protests and features a rap by Neil Norris, West’s cousin.

Payam Sohrabi introducing a music video he produced featuring weekly protests led by the family of Tyrone West and a rap by Neil Norris, West's cousin.
Credit P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

Sorhabi said he has been working with the West family “since the first vigil, trying to document everything and show everything from a perspective from the family.”

Sohrabi said the video is a preview of a documentary film he is working on about the case. He said it will include interviews with the family and, if they cooperate, police and the state’s attorney’s office.

It also is to include footage of weekly protests at the Northeast District Police Station, Morgan State University, City Hall, the SunTrust Building - home of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office - and the State Medical Examiner’s Office, site of the most recent West Wednesday.

As part of their claims of a cover-up, the family has accused the medical examiner of taking inordinately long to complete the autopsy on West and complained that they are still waiting for a complete autopsy report.

“All we got was nine, thin, flimsy pages which they said they were going to give us the rest and we never got anything else,” said Tawanda Jones, West’s sister.

Bruce Goldfarb, spokesman for the medical examiner’s office, said the West case was treated no differently than any other case.

Jones also said the family is still waiting for outside labs reports, but it is not clear whether those reports were ordered.  Goldfarb declined to be interviewed for this story.

City Hall Steps In

As the family’s protests continued, city leaders got involved. In November, City Councilmen Warren Branch and Bill Henry introduced a resolution calling for a hearing into the West incident. The resolution noted that national standards “call for cause-of-death determinations to be made within 90 days, and results are often well before that.”

The medical examiner sent that determination to State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein in November, approximately 120 days after the incident, but Bernstein did not release it until after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked for it in December.

Kevin Harris, spokesman for the mayor, said she has met with the West family alongside Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and that she has done everything she can to help the family.

“Everything she has done consistently throughout this entire process has been on the side of let’s get all of the information out,” Harris said. “Let’s get all the facts out so that the family hopefully can find closure and get as much information as possible as to what may have happened that night.”

The Findings

West was, as they say, known to officers.  He had done time for drug distribution, assault and resisting arrest and was released on parole in 2012.

Bernstein said officers pulled West over at Kitmore and Kelway Roads because they believed he was hiding a weapon.  During the stop, Officer Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz noticed a bulge in West’s sock.  When Ruiz tried to inspect the bulge, West swung at Ruiz and fled.

After fights with several officers, Bernstein said, police held West to the ground and began to handcuff him. Shortly afterward, he stopped breathing.  He died later at a hospital

The medical examiner ruled that West died of a heart issue made worse by the heat and his struggle with officers. When he released his report, Bernstein concluded that the officers “did not act in a grossly negligent manner that created a high degree of risk to human life.” He declined to charge them.

The West family questioned those findings and complained about how Bernstein treated them.

“The way that he [shared his findings] was really disgusting,” said Jones. “Like, he didn’t have enough respect for my family.”

She argued that Bernstein treated reporters better than her family, showing them a power point to explain his findings. “I have my own [PowerPoint].  You see this?! Ten officers on one unarmed man equal murder!”

The West family has filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Commissioner Batts and the officers involved. They are also seeking help from the Justice Department.

An independent review of the incident is in its final stages and expected to be released soon.

Reform and Release

Despite their complaints, Jones said she and her family know that all police officers are not bad, but said the bad ones create problems.

“They need to get rid of those bad ones that make them all look bad,” she said, “They have a hard job to do as well; protecting and patrolling the street but we don’t pay them to kill us.”

At the Friday night vigil, West was remembered through poetry, prayer and the release of 45 balloons; the number representing West’s age at his death. Supporters marched along Kelway Road chanting “justice for Tyrone West.”

The Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore City Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the West family has done a lot to shine a light on issues of police conduct.

“They were together then and are together now,” he said, “They are unified and they have, in fact, taken the struggle for police brutality to another level.”