The morning after the worst mass shooting in recent Baltimore history, cleaners with red dustpans and brooms worked behind police tape on Elarton Court, sweeping trash.
An hour later, a Baltimore Police Department employee began laying down evidence markers.
Even casual viewers of TV cop dramas might be surprised by this order of operations — and forensic experts interviewed by The Banner were too. Cleaning a crime scene before police finish processing evidence goes against national standards, they said.
The misstep destroyed DNA evidence that may have been pivotal to solving a case in which police have made little progress identifying and arresting suspects, those experts said.
“Within my career, I’ve seen slight instances of things like this but nothing as wide scale,” said Boston University forensic science professor Adam Hall.
This sequence of events following the mass shooting has resurfaced concerns about how BPD handles evidence. In 2021, a crime lab supervisor told The Baltimore Sun the lab had a massive backlog including thousands of untested fingerprints. Last week, The Banner reported that advocate groups were outraged by city police seizing Brooklyn shooting victims’ belongings while they were in the hospital.
Police defended their actions in emails to The Banner, claiming they requested housing authority workers clean the scene to help evidence collection.
“Though it could be construed by others as a mistake, removal of the debris allowed investigators to recover more evidence that we would have likely been summoned back to the area to collect, collected on a follow-up scene canvass, or potentially would have lost,” BPD spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge wrote in an email.
The email continually referred to the trash as “debris” and not evidence — a differentiation Eldridge said BPD crime scene investigators make using “their expert judgment” to decide “what is evidence and what can remain ‘trash or debris.’”
“Not everything is evidence,” Eldridge noted.
Forensic experts strongly disagree with this approach. Crime scene analyst Marilyn Miller emphasized in an interview with The Banner that debris can be crucial evidence in any case. Police in New York recently identified the prime suspect in the Gilgo Beach murders using DNA evidence found on a pizza box left in the trash.
“Everything could be important,” Miller said. “So you need to preserve it.”
A visual timeline of the morning after
Unlike other areas of policing, Hall said, crime scene best practices are largely agreed upon nationwide.
First, police typically secure the scene with police tape. Then they document the scene, speaking with eyewitnesses, photographing the scene and taking videos, before collecting evidence, typically while wearing gloves and depositing items into evidence bags. Once they have sufficiently investigated the scene, Hall would expect police to remove the tape, release the scene and allow the cleanup to begin.
But this isn’t what happened the morning after the Brooklyn Homes shooting based on timestamped photos a Banner photographer took that day.
[8:18 a.m.] Elarton Court was a sea of utensils, plastic bags and red Solo cups.
[8:44 a.m.] Photos show housing authority workers cleaning up debris.
[9:58 a.m.] A BPD employee holding evidence bags and wearing gloves with a camera around her neck began placing evidence markers. Most of the debris had been cleared from the courtyard.
[3:20 p.m.] During a press conference, a Banner reporter asked acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley if police had been properly maintaining the scene and collecting evidence.
“If you got to the crime scene now, detectives, federal partners are still looking for evidence and will continue to look for evidence until we find everything that we need to prosecute and arrest these individuals,” he said.
Eldridge wrote in an email that BPD had canvassed the scene several times to collect evidence, including the night of the shooting and prior to the cleanup.
“Everything is important”
The copious debris scattering the crime scene was a potential gold mine of DNA evidence, Miller said.
“In a high-stress situation like that mass shooting, eyewitnesses are going to have a different view of what they think happened,” Miller said. “The only thing that isn’t going to be changed or altered is what the evidence shows.”
BPD is investigating the case in a variety of ways, including analyzing shell casings found on scene, eyewitness testimony, surveillance footage and social media posts. During the initial canvass police collected over 100 items, such as clothing, cartridge casings and phones, for potential DNA analysis, Eldridge said.
BPD did not confirm or deny if debris from the scene was among the items being analyzed for DNA evidence. Eldridge also did not respond to questions about how investigators determine what is debris and what is evidence.
To Miller, who is a professor emeritus in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Forensic Science, clearing trash from the scene was a brazen and misguided move.
“Everything is important. You should never alter or destroy any evidence,” Miller said. “If you do, you run the risk of not solving the case. It’s as simple as that.”
But Lawrence Kobilinsky, a professor emeritus of forensic sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said collecting every piece of debris at a scene might not be possible — especially at one “as big and vast” as the Brooklyn Homes shooting, which spanned blocks.
Regardless, a crime scene shouldn’t be cleaned until the police tape comes down, he said. But law enforcement also must balance the crime lab’s bandwidth while collecting evidence.
“Who knows how many items there are,” Kobilinsky said. “There could be thousands. How could one lab handle so many items?”
Baltimore’s crime lab has a history of struggling to meet demand. In 2021, lab supervisor Ken Phillips told The Baltimore Sun the lab was always in “triage mode.”
Phillips claimed city police collecting evidence at crime scenes were “a sort of theater, designed to appease the public” and evidence often was not analyzed. He said the lab had unprocessed evidence from thousands of cases, including murders, rapes and carjackings.
In response to questions about Phillips’ allegations, Eldridge said, “No negative findings on the department’s process and policies were found by outside state oversight and national accreditation boards.”
She confirmed that BPD’s crime lab still has a backlog but said the department is prioritizing testing evidence from the Brooklyn Homes shooting.
An independent review also found BPD failed to correctly handle evidence in a high-profile case in 2018. The panel investigating the handling of homicide Detective Sean Suiter’s killing found BPD failed to maintain crime scene evidence logs, timely photograph physical evidence or document the recovery of a critical piece of evidence.
During a recent city hearing on the Brooklyn Homes shooting, Worley admitted to failures on behalf of city police. But he did not address BPD’s evidence handling the morning after.
Worley told City Council members that, despite Brooklyn Day being an annual event, BPD didn’t learn about the block party until that day and failed to mobilize a comprehensive monitoring plan.
“When we saw that the event was happening, when we saw the crowd growing, when we got reports there were people with weapons, we could have — and should have — done more,” Worley said.
The agency’s compliance bureau is working to produce an “after-action review” to conduct a “comprehensive, holistic and honest assessment” of BPD’s actions, and lack thereof, the night of the shooting, he continued.
Eldridge told The Banner the after-action review will include more details about the morning after.
Banner reporters Justin Fenton and Julie Scharper contributed to this story.