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Board Cites Miscues and Miscommunication in West Case

P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

City police did not use excessive force in the case of Tyrone West, who died in police custody last year, but they did make tactical errors, the Independent Review Board has found.

The six member board, which released its findings late Friday, also found that police failed to communicate properly with the West family and the public in the aftermath of the July 2013 incident.

The board, comprised of experts in law, medicine and criminal justice, included recommendations to Baltimore Police to improve training, investigations, officer accountability and communication with the community.

In the report, the board found officers used force that was “necessary and reasonable” to subdue “an exceptionally strong and well-muscled suspect” who was resisting arrest and that they used “less than lethal weapons and defense tactics.”

The report also noted that officers involved deviated from some police policies and training that may have extended the length of the incident.

James K. Stewart, chairman of the review board, said the traffic stop made by officers in the Northeast Operations Unit, a specialized group of officers that focus on drugs and guns, was necessary based on the actions of West and his passenger.

“They observed an unsafe backing which attracted their attention to the vehicle.  They followed the vehicle in an unmarked car and plain clothes for a couple of blocks and the people in the vehicle continued to look back over their shoulder and began to duck down,” Stewart said.

Stewart added, however, that the board was concerned about how the unit was used.

“The question is, is that the best use of a highly trained enforcement team or whether those ought to be concentrated in other areas,” he said.

The board also criticized the police department for “insufficient and [non-]transparent” communications with the family and the lack of experience of two officers assigned to the unit.

West’s family has staged weekly protests since the incident, the most recent one at police headquarters.  They’ve accused police, the state’s attorney’s office and the state medical examiner of a cover up.

Police gave several copies of the report to a member of the West family Friday.

There was also a recommendation to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to better inform the public when a delay may happen if a specialist is need during a death investigation.  The medical examiner ruled that West died of a heart issue exacerbated by his struggle with police and the hot weather; temperatures reached the high 90s with the heat index value in the low 100s.

The death investigation was completed in December.  

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the department did not wait for the report to make changes.  The department created a separate unit to investigate cases involving force called the Force Investigation Team, or F.I.T.

“We’ve been making movements in the past two years to reform our organization to make it a better organization,” Batts said.