In the spring of last year, the Baltimore Police Department was sued by a group of shooting victims who said detectives had a pattern and practice of confiscating and searching their property as they lay in hospital beds receiving treatment, then failing to give their property back.

Among the plaintiffs was a woman shot in the head and chest by a stranger while at a birthday cookout in East Baltimore. When she was released from the hospital, she was without her cellphone, jeans, shirt, shoes, $400 cash and the key to her car, which a detective had seized without her consent or a warrant. Her property still hasn’t been returned.

But while the city fought the lawsuit, seeking to have it dismissed and then trying to avoid having to produce evidence, officials were sitting on a scathing Justice Department report that described a wide range of ways that victims are mistreated by the city’s criminal justice system. It found that in their desperate attempt to quell violence, police often use heavy-handed tactics, such as handcuffing people to hospital beds, denying them funds or relocation services, or confiscating possessions.

It’s a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that exacerbates distrust, leaving cases unsolved and furthering the cycle of violence, says Heather Warnken, who led the review and is now director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Why would they give you information when you treat them inhumanely?” Warnken said.

Heather Warnken, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore. Prior to this job, she did an assessment of how Baltimore fails victims and witnesses of crimes, particularly young Black men. (Shan Wallace)

City leaders held a news conference this month to roll out a number of changes they said they’ve been making to address the report, which was submitted last July but kept from the public and others working in victim services until recently. They’re expanding the department’s victim services unit and starting a pilot program in two of the nine police districts to support non-fatal shooting victims. Previously, only homicide victims’ families were assigned victim advocates.

“We know that this is something that will make a real difference in the well-being of our residents and our communities,” Mayor Brandon Scott said at a news conference.

In response to other areas, police said existing policies and training will lead to fixes. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the police and law departments are also trying to work on policy changes regarding confiscation of victims’ property, but Tianna Mayes, the lead attorney on the lawsuit, said the claim rings hollow.

“To me, if you’re addressing these issues, then at a minimum, why haven’t some people had their property returned?” Mayes said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Warnken is frustrated, too, saying even though some progress has been made, the year that the report was kept under wraps was time that could have been spent developing solutions with community partners. She’s perhaps more concerned, though, that the city’s fixes fall short of a culture shift that reaches all levels of the department.

“If you’re not having an honest conversation about how deep and complex these challenges are, you’re not setting even those proactive measures up for success,” Warnken told The Baltimore Banner.

City Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the council’s public safety committee, plans to convene a hearing next month. “While I can appreciate the urge to look forward, we also need to be intentional about digesting the report’s diagnosis of the serious issues in how the police department has historically treated victims of crime.”

‘This is a crime-fighting strategy’

When the 2015 unrest following the death of Freddie Gray occurred, West Baltimore native James Dixon was working for the Postal Service and looking for a way to use his master’s degree in social work. When he saw a job posting from the Baltimore Police Department for the first-ever victim’s advocate, working out of the homicide unit, he decided to go for it.

For a while, Dixon was the only such employee, and many in the Police Department were unaware the role existed. But the unit has been growing, and more importantly, he says, becoming more integrated into the police department’s operations.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“This is a crime-fighting strategy,” Dixon says of victim advocate work. “Meeting people where they are, at the moment when they’re most vulnerable and then offering them options to heal properly from what has happened, will prevent any type of retaliatory event.”

Dixon was among more than 65 people who sat for interviews with Warnken and her team, conducted as part of the city’s participation in a federal program called the Public Safety Partnership, which provides technical assistance and training to police departments. The review team sought to tap into the knowledge of those working on the front lines with victims: Baltimore Police Department sworn and professional staff, victim service providers in community and hospital-based programs, and other partners.

Warnken’s review found that Dixon’s unit was underutilized and unappreciated. While every homicide case was assigned a victim advocate, “many sworn personnel, even detectives assigned to the exact same cases, are unaware of the advocates’ duties and substantial benefits they bring to families and cases,” the report said. Advocates were described as too often simply serving as a buffer or shield between “dysfunctional, non-trauma-informed aspects of BPD policy and practice, and the victims, providers and other community members they are trying to serve.”

It’s true that, particularly with regard to gun violence, a victim one day could be the perpetrator the next, said James Timpson, who works with the anti-violence program ROCA. But when his clients come to him for help, he provides it with no stipulations.

“Victim assistance is a human right,” Timpson said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The DOJ report agreed, saying that while law enforcement believe many don’t cooperate due to a “no snitching” culture or a “street mentality,” authorities seem unable to appreciate how certain walls could be broken down with a more trauma-informed approach.

“People are often rightfully very afraid, especially if the system is unwilling or unable to support a level of protection commensurate with their safety needs,” the report said.

The Police Department’s witness relocation unit is staffed by a single employee and has few resources for short- and long-term housing, food, transportation and other survival needs. Witnesses can be excluded from resources if they are deemed gang members or informants and domestic violence survivors, with a lack of transparency surrounding such determinations. It ultimately leads to “arbitrary disparities in whose life will be protected versus who will have to fend for themselves,” the report says.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, which has more resources for victim and witness services, doesn’t get involved in helping witnesses unless an arrest has been made and there is a case to preserve. The report found a “pervasive sense” that protection was contingent on testifying, pressure felt acutely by those experiencing poverty or a sense of desperation for such assistance.

The report also found that the BPD too often blocked or didn’t help to process benefits that victims sought from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Implementing solutions

Earlier this year, the Abell Foundation was considering doing a study about victim services, prompted by the experience of having difficulty finding assistance for an assault victim who asked to be relocated. Abell funded her relocation out of the city and wanted to further study gaps in services, said Amanda Owens, the nonprofit’s program officer for criminal justice and addiction, before learning such a study already existed.

“I appreciate that from the city’s perspective they wanted to make sure that all partners were involved and had signed off on it,” Owens said, adding, “I think it’s something that would’ve been helpful to have access to it sooner.”

Though the report was finished last July, city officials say they did not want it to get out before they had a chance to begin implementing solutions. When service providers were given a briefing a few weeks ago prior to the public release, copies were distributed at the top of the meeting and collected at the end.

“As a city government, we have to do better. We are doing better,” Shantay Jackson, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, said at the Aug. 12 news conference.

Sarah Ritter, the top aide to Deputy Police Commissioner of Operations Sheree Briscoe, said the Public Safety Partnership report’s findings were not a surprise to the police department.

“We knew that those dynamics existed,” she said. “For us, it’s been a useful tool to say, we need to invest more in this, we need more community-based partners that can help us with shooting victims. It’s just kind of external validation that we’re on the right track.”

Among the initiatives highlighted in the report that officials have been working on is how to revamp and include advocates in the death notification process, when detectives inform a family that a loved one has been killed. Ritter showed a reporter an intricate flow chart on a dry erase board that she said reflects months of strategizing and working through different scenarios to ensure a larger role for advocates is a positive experience for victims and does not interfere with investigations.

In what officials say is unprecedented for police departments across the country, the victim advocate unit has been increased in size and is now deploying, on a pilot basis, to non-fatal shootings in two of the city’s nine police districts.

“We meet them in the hospital and introduce ourselves, and then we follow up with them on an almost daily basis until they are released from the hospital,” Dixon said. “The goal is to try to figure out if there’s anything that we can do to help them if they need to change their lifestyle — if there’s any resources that they need to help them to not become future homicide victims or repeat shooting victims.”

Relatives of homicide victims and people who have themselves been shot have different needs, and Dixon said that is reflected in the number of people taking up the offer of assistance so far. While Dixon said between 85% and 92% of homicide victims’ families accept help, that number has been around 50% for gunshot victims.

In the city’s reply to the Public Safety Partnership report, it said the victim services unit had been moved into police headquarters, into a “larger and trauma-informed office space,” the latter a term now in wide use by city officials that refers to a more victim-centered approach. On a reporter’s recent visit, there was nothing particularly “trauma-informed” about the office space beyond the office having been moved from a small, windowless room to a large space with windows.

In other areas addressed by the report, officials used ambiguous language, such as saying they were looking to “streamline existing process” with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. As for the beleaguered one-man witness relocation unit, the police department wrote that it “agreed” with the findings but that “capacity is limited.”

Asked about the claims that detectives wrongly confiscate and search people’s property and fail to return it, Commissioner Michael Harrison said that “nothing should be taken that’s not evidence of a crime,” but that police were looking to the city law department for “guidance to restructure policy and training so that we can have the appropriate protocols to remedy that.”

Mayes said that whatever new policies are enacted must clearly define what is evidence and what is personal property, and how detectives can make the proper determination. “If they say they’re following policy and making changes, then clearly the policy is wrong and they’re not making enough changes or making them fast enough,” Mayes said. “Victims are still having their property seized, and still having trouble getting it returned.”

From left, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, Shantay Jackson, and Mayor Brandon Scott discuss a victim services report at Our Daily Bread.
From left, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, and Mayor Brandon Scott discuss a victim services report at Our Daily Bread. (J.J. McQueen/office of Mayor Brandon Scott)

‘The work is just beginning’

Adam Rosenberg, executive director at LifeBridge Health Center for Hope, a group that helps victims of trauma, said he believes the Scott administration has an ambitious agenda that it is trying to execute in an impatient city exhausted by violent crime. In 15 years, he said, he’s seen many such efforts.

“A year ago, I probably would’ve said, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ The honest answer is, I’m starting to see it. I think they’re making change,” Rosenberg said.

Timpson, of ROCA, said he is hopeful as well. “We’re in a different space now to [be able to] work through what true community collaboration looks like,” he said.

Warnken said one thing that stood out in compiling the report was that are more resources than many people are aware of, but that there is “not just a gulf but canyons” In connecting people to them.

“There are a lot of programs and assets to bring to bear. But the challenges around actually using them effectively, using them in a coordinated way and making sure they are accessible to the people who need them most — that was way more challenging than the lack of resources.”

She listened to the report being discussed at Aug. 12 press conference and at the quarterly consent decree oversight hearing, and believes the problems laid out in the report continue to be played down and minimized. “They act like this stuff is peripheral at their own peril,” she said.

Jackson, of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, said with the challenge so vast, officials have been working to break down fixes so they are “digestible enough to be actionable on.”

“The work is just beginning,” Jackson said.

Warnken started her new role with UB in January and was reluctant to express her frustrations but said fixing the problems are her goal.

“It requires honesty on what the starting point is and how very far we have to go. It requires not just talking points that we won’t police and prosecute our way out of gun violence, but actions that repair and rebuild relationships rooted in dignity and a more holistic set of public safety goals.”

Read more:

· Man who forged document, paid witness to overturn murder conviction is Baltimore’s 200th homicide victim

· First half of 2022 is deadliest in Baltimore history

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

More From The Banner