When Patricia learned that her son was one of 28 people injured in a horrific shooting at the annual Brooklyn Day block party in South Baltimore, her first reaction was disbelief.
“Boy, you’re lying,” she told her teenage son when he called her from the hospital.
In the dead of night, Patricia raced to MedStar Harbor Hospital, where many of the victims were treated. On arrival, she was crying and desperate for information but couldn’t find her son. Soon after, she got a call from her son saying he had been transported to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center and was heading into a five-hour surgery. A single bullet had struck him in three different places. The Baltimore Banner is not using Patricia’s full name or naming her son due to concerns for their safety.
In the chaos of the moment, Patricia didn’t realize until after the fact that police took some of her son’s belongings as evidence as he was going into surgery. For the Brooklyn Day block party, he had picked out two of his favorite items of designer clothing. Both were missing.
The accessories had meaning for Patricia, too. She dreams of opening her own food truck, and works full-time in the health care sector to pay the bills. She usually spends what’s left on her two children: fancy clothes, video games, even computers.
Patricia has gone to great lengths to keep her son off the streets. And on the night he was shot, she said, he was simply at a party hanging out with his friends. But she believes the police took his designer clothes out of suspicion. The two items added up to about $2,500. Patricia said she is used to people assuming the worst about her son, a young Black man. She detailed how her mother used tax return money to gift the clothes to him. She said she’s kept the receipts.
“I spoil my son,” Patricia said. “Anybody at all can tell you, I spoil him because I don’t want him to go out there. I try my best and work very hard.”
Meanwhile, the costs of caring for her son are piling up, and the recovery could be as long as a year, Patricia said. She’s always been an easygoing person, she said, but now she spends much of her time worried about how she will be able to afford it all.
Sitting in her backyard on her day off, Patricia told The Banner about her many challenges: figuring out which bills to pay and how and making sure there’s enough food, because her son can be a picky eater. She said she is grateful for the help she’s getting from the Baltimore Police Department’s Victim Services Unit. Liaisons from the mayor’s office, the local Safe Streets site and a nonprofit have all already offered support.
But Patricia is still contending with more than most people could stomach, and on top of that, she needs to get in touch with the homicide detectives who seized her son’s belongings without even providing their contact information.
Patricia’s frustration over the seemingly wide latitude police have to seize personal items as evidence at a crime scene or in the hospital is well documented in Baltimore. A collection of civil rights attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit against the city in 2021 over how the police seize personal items as evidence and provide no clear way to get them back. That lawsuit is currently in settlement talks.
On the heels of that lawsuit, a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report listed the many ways in which the Police Department’s treatment of gun violence survivors undermined its efforts to rebuild community trust and, in turn, solve more cases.
But despite declarative promises by the mayor and former police commissioner to reform how police interact with gun violence survivors, several of the Brooklyn Day shooting victims complained to advocates of personal items being seized as evidence.
One advocate said her group is working with 10 victims from the mass shooting, and at least two of them complained of the evidentiary practices immediately, but that she still was working to interview the rest.
A spokesperson for the Police Department said “evidentiary property” is held until the conclusion of a criminal case, and that it communicates this to victims and their families through its Victim Services Unit. The department said it had received nine requests to return items to the victim or “claimant,” and had provided items in two of those requests: a vehicle and a cell phone.
“We are currently working with VSU [the Victim Services Unit) and our detectives in determining what property does not have evidentiary value and can be released,” said Amanda Krotki, the department’s deputy director of public affairs.
Last summer, more than a year after the release of a draft of the scathing report on how police treated crime victims in Baltimore, city officials stood before an array of television cameras and openly acknowledged they had a significant problem.
The report, a product of a federal violence reduction partnership between the city and the DOJ, described in detail how Baltimore Police seized personal items from gunshot victims, ranging from wallets, cellphones, cash, e-bikes, family heirlooms, jewelry and even medical equipment like wheelchairs.
It also identified other problematic, potentially unconstitutional and widespread practices, such as hospital bedside interrogations, shackling victims to their beds and refusing visitors. The report’s recommendations were paired with assurances by the Police Department that it would prioritize “trust and relationship building,” in part by “minimizing or eliminating” the confiscation of crime victims’ property, and said the department would avoid restraining victims to hospital beds, among other promises.
But the allegations in the report weren’t new. Similar complaints led to a class action lawsuit filed in April 2021 by a committee of civil rights lawyers. The attorneys had brought forward four plaintiffs who laid out in detail the various items police took from them without their permission while they were incapacitated after shootings: cellphones, wallets, clothing and jewelry.
The lawyers believed there were many other gunshot victims with similar experiences. They remain in settlement talks with the city’s legal team and declined to answer questions for this article.
Lydia Watts, executive director of the ROAR (Rebuild, Overcome and Rise) Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said she has been trying to get the Police Department to change its ways when it comes to crime victims for about four years, well before the report came out and before the civil rights class-action suit was filed.
Her urging was met with varying degrees of surprise, acknowledgment of the problem, and promises to dig deeper and find a solution, she said. Ultimately, Watts said, the city officials she queried started ignoring her.
So Watts, whose center serves low-income victims of crime, wasn’t surprised when 10 victims came to the ROAR Center for help after the Brooklyn Homes shooting. At least two of them started off by complaining about their personal belongings being seized by police, she said, though she clarified that she had not yet interviewed all of them about what was taken.
It does have the effect, she said, of making those promises from city leaders of a “trauma-informed approach” delivered at the press conference last August feel empty.
“It’s all window dressing,” Watts said of the promised reforms. “None of it is real.”
Watts estimated that, over the last four years, she’s had more than 100 clients who have had their personal items seized as evidence.
“Sometimes it’s seized from them at the crime scene, but more frequently it’s at the hospital,” said Watts. “They take everything that’s on them.”
Heather Warnken, who authored the federal report and is now director of the University of Baltimore Law School’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said the problems around how police interact with gun violence victims exists in other cities, “but there are few places in the entire country where it’s more well documented than in Baltimore.
“At this point, it’s been detailed in a class-action civil rights lawsuit and an in-depth DOJ report, delivered already years into a consent decree,” Warnken said, referring to the court-ordered oversight the department entered into in 2017. “These practices are traumatizing crime victims, violating constitutional rights and undermining the city’s violence-reduction efforts.”
Warnken, who helped tend to victims of the Brooklyn Day shooting and spoke to families, said the report she authored didn’t just document the problems, it also offered solutions.
“It’s painful to see how little has changed,” she added.
A spokesperson from the mayor’s office told The Banner in a written statement that city officials have “learned much from the recommendations of the PSP report and continues to use its findings to shape our approach to victim services and the ways that we partner with others in this space.”
“As this active investigation continues, BPD victim services — in partnership with MONSE [the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement] and the SAO [State’s Attorney’s Office] — will continue to take a trauma-informed approach to engage with residents who have been impacted and to facilitate access to wrap-around services that promote the well-being of those residents’ physical, mental, and emotional health following this tragic event,” the statement said.
The blurred lines and gray areas of evidentiary policy
The Police Department said it is “actively making changes” to its policies guiding evidence collection and added that upcoming training for sworn officers will get into what constitutes evidence, as well as “provide a clear process so officers/public know how to retrieve items that no longer contain evidentiary value.”
Joe Kim, associate director for training and technical assistance at the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, said such policies are often vague and allow too much room for interpretation, especially around items like jewelry and clothing.
“Police might say there is some degree of evidentiary value, but it’s really gray on who determines that,” Kim said. “Is that in some way communicated to the victim at the hospital? And it’s really unclear who is responsible for the property once it’s confiscated from patients.”
Kim’s group helps develop best practices around hospital-based violence-intervention programs, or HVIPS, of which there are many in Baltimore. The programs aim to combine the efforts of medical professionals with local community-based groups to provide services to victims of violence.
And yet, even with those groups there can still be issues around police confiscating property. For instance, Kim said he has heard many stories of detectives taking items as a coercive measure to gain someone’s cooperation, which was mentioned in Warnken’s report.
But taking personal items from crime victims can have a real impact that police departments rarely consider, Kim said. Taking things like cellphones and wallets leave people unable to contact their families or access pain medication when they’re discharged.s
Joseph Richardson Jr., the founding director of the hospital violence intervention program at the University of Maryland’s Capital Region Medical Center and a gun violence professor at the university, said the police seizing personal property as evidence is a regional problem, if not a national one.
Richardson said the extent of the issue depends in part on how compliant medical staff at a given trauma center are with police officers: Some are very strict about not letting law enforcement near trauma bays, while others, he said, don’t really care.
When it comes to reforming police departments like Baltimore’s to curb the practice, Richardson said, “It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”
“There is a culture that is so entrenched in the Baltimore Police Department, that I don’t think we’ll be able to get rid of any time soon,” he said. “Even though they may not legally be the correct procedures, they’re still going along with the playbook of what they think works. And what they think works, versus what’s actually legal, are two totally different things in police culture.”