Almost two years have passed since 44-year-old Tyrone West was killed by Baltimore police officers during a routine traffic stop. His home city has been the focus of national attention as police officers killed 25-year-old Freddie Gray in April and indictments were brought against those involved, but West’s sister, Tawanda Jones, is still looking for answers and for someone to be held accountable for her brother’s death.
As the media has shifted its focus from Baltimore to McKinney, Texas, where a police officer brutally attacked a group of African American teenagers this weekend, those hurt by police brutality in Baltimore are still struggling for recognition.
In July 2013, West was pulled over while driving through Northeast Baltimore. Police and witnesses claimed that he fought with the officers, but Jones and other family members maintain that he was beaten to death. Making the situation even more complicated, an autopsy found that he died of a heart condition exacerbated by the encounter.
None of the police officers involved in West’s death were charged with any criminal wrongdoing, yet an independent panel created to review his death determined last year that officers did not follow basic policies and made tactical errors that “potentially aggravated the situation.”
The independent panel’s 2014 report found that the officers’ failure to follow policies revealed a “lack of respect for both youth and adults who are stopped by the police” and “contributed to the deterioration of the car stop from a controlled situation into a chaotic one that escalated into dangerous chaos.”
But how the events played out is still unclear to Jones, who told ThinkProgress the police department lacked transparency at every step. She saw her older brother’s dead body on TV before she was notified by law enforcement. When she finally got to see her brother’s body at the funeral home, she said it looked as if law enforcement had reconstructed his face so she wouldn’t notice he had been beaten.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said in 2014 that the review of West’s death would help the department with its “continuing journey towards reform.” Yet as the death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing protests and riots showed, racial tensions are as high as ever in Baltimore. Despite Jones’ tireless efforts on the behalf of her brother, she said racial relations in her home city have worsened as tensions between police and the African American community around the country have deteriorated.
“Obviously they didn’t [improve],” she said. “You see what happened to Freddie Gray. To me, now things are worse… It’s never been like this.”
Since 2011, the city has paid roughly $5.7 million in lawsuits brought by community members who claimed they were victims of police brutality. Violent encounters between police and African Americans in the city were commonplace, but Gray’s death launched the issue into the national spotlight. And due to the media attention, the national government finally took note — the Department of Justice announced last month it is investigating Baltimore’s police department to determine if it has engaged in a practice of using excessive force.
After Gray’s death, Jones said she met with his family members to console them because she knows that “when this type of pain hits you, you can never shake it.” But the comments she heard Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake make to Gray’s family proved that the police department hasn’t changed as it said it would after her brother’s death.
The people we pay to serve and protect us are killers.
“That’s the same exact stuff they told my family,” she said. “It’s like they’re reading off a script and changing the family member’s name, that’s it. You can at least change the speech up. At least have enough respect for these families to say something different.”
Jones and other family members continue to hold “West Wednesdays” each week — protests in which they fight to keep West’s story alive and discuss ways to finally attain justice. While progress is slow, Jones said they have had some successes. Jones recently met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and others in the Department of Justice who said they will look into her brother’s case and whether charges should have been brought. Jones also fought for the election of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who won against the former attorney who failed to bring charges against the officers involved in West’s death. Mosby has become a champion for reform ever since she brought charges against all six officers involved in Gray’s death and provided hope to many who had grown accustomed to police officers getting away with brutal acts.
But instead of systematically acknowledging the problem, police in Baltimore continue to justify their activity by pointing to the high rate of murder in the city — May was the deadliest month in Baltimore since the 1970s with 42 people killed.
“We have people in the communities saying you’re fighting for this while we’re murdering each other,” she said. “That’s terrible, my heart goes out for any murder because the family will never be the same, but the big difference is we know who the killers are. The people we pay to serve and protect us are killers. You can’t compare the two.”