Former members of gun task force named in suit over fatal crash
Children of an 86-year-old man who was killed by a driver fleeing a corrupt police officer are seeking $25 million in damages from the Baltimore Police Department, the city, the state and former members of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force.
Six of Elbert Davis’ adult children said in a lawsuit filed in federal court that their father died “as a direct result” of three officers’ actions. They said in the complaint that officers did not render aid or call for an ambulance, but instead “worked to cover their tracks” by planting 32 grams of heroin in the car they had chased.
Shirley Johnson, one of Davis’ daughters, teared up at a press conference Friday as she described how her family for years believed the officers’ lies until their corrupt practices were revealed last year.
“We were told that —” Johnson said, her voice trailing off while she regained her composure. “It’s been so long. The lying went on for so long. It was over seven years before we found out what really happened to my dad.”
“It angers me,” she said. “Every time we speak about it, I get angry all over again because it shouldn’t have happened and my father would be here today if it wasn’t for [the officers’] actions on that day.”
Davis was killed April 28, 2010, when two men sped away from officers who had boxed them in on Parkview Avenue in the Grove Park neighborhood.
Three officers driving unmarked cars and wearing plainclothes drew their guns while they approached the men’s car, the Davis family’s lawyers said. Driver Umar Burley and passenger Brent Matthews have said they fled because they believed they were being robbed.
Among the officers was former Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the leader of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force who was sentenced in June to 25 years in federal prison.
During the high-speed chase, Burley crashed into Davis’ Monte Carlo at the intersection of Gwynn Oak and Bell avenues, a four-way stop, seriously injuring Davis and his wife. Hours later, Davis died of his injuries.
“On that day, instead of attending my father who was trapped in a car, they were busy trying to plant drugs on Umar Burley,” Johnson said.
John Solter Jr., a lawyer representing Davis’ children, said that while there are many victims of the corrupt police officers’ actions, “this is the one case [in which] an innocent man was killed.” Their grief, he said, has “turned to anger.”
“The Davis family is the ultimate victim of this terrible story, and the Davis family seeks justice,” Solter said.
Davis was “always there” for his children, Johnson said, “no matter what time, day or night, [or] how large or small the problem was.”
She said the officers who chased Burley and Matthews “robbed us of the good times we spent with our father: birthdays, holidays, special occasions, they robbed us of that. Until this day, I’m still angry about that because we miss our father every day.”
In the suit, the family says the officers “violated not only Burley and Matthews’ rights, but also [Davis’] constitutional right to life and liberty, resulting in his death.”
The family is also seeking damages directly from Jenkins, Sgt. Ryan Guinn and the estate of Detective Sean Suiter, who was fatally shot once in the head with his own service weapon in a vacant lot last year. All three were involved in the chase. Jenkins and Guinn, who remains a member of the department and has not been charged with a crime, later became members of the elite task force.
“The false statements of Jenkins, Guinn and Suiter, adopted by the BPD, misled not only state and federal agents and prosecutors, but also [Davis’] family as they sought justice for the death of their father,” the lawsuit reads.
Since at least 2005, the Police Department, city and state “had repeated notice” — based on convictions of officers, lawsuits, newspaper articles and state prosecutors — that Baltimore police officers “engaged in a widespread pattern of blatant unconstitutional violations,” according to the suit.
At his sentencing hearing in June, Jenkins apologized to the Davis family and Burley and admitted covering up officers’ planting of the drugs. “From the bottom of my heart, I wish I could take that day back,” he said.
The Baltimore Police Department and a lawyer for Guinn declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday. Suiter’s wife, who is the representative of his estate, could not be reached. City Solicitor Andre Davis said he was still looking over the complaint.
The solicitor has previously said that corrupt officers were acting outside the scope of their employment, and so the city should not have to pay out judgments from lawsuits relating to the officers’ mistreatment of citizens.
Judson Lipowitz, another lawyer representing the family, dismissed that idea on Friday, saying that the officers were working for the city and that the department’s entire leadership is responsible for their abuse.
Corrupt officers’ practices “were tolerated by the Baltimore Police Department, and it implicates the entire chain of command from Detective Jenkins to his supervisors up to the commissioner, and all the way up to the mayor and any of the policymakers who were familiar,” Lipowitz said.
The lawsuit is the latest fallout from one of the biggest police corruption scandals in city history. Eight officers who were members of the now-dissolved unit have been convicted of racketeering charges and sentenced to between seven and 25 years in prison.
Burley and Matthews are also suing the Baltimore Police Department and Maryland, seeking $40 million.
U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett is presiding over both of the lawsuits, and it is possible he could combine the two cases, lawyers for the Davis family said, although they would prefer he hear them separately.
Bennett is the same judge who vacated Burley’s and Bennett’s convictions in December after they had spent years in prison, apologizing to them and shaking their hands. Bennett had accepted their guilty pleas years ago and said the court is careful when accepting guilty pleas, but “the system still failed.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Davis’ daughters Johnson, Delores Davis, Mary Cox, Gloria Davis, sons Albert Cain and Elbert Davis Jr., and the administrator of the estate of Arthur Cain, a son of Davis who is dead.
A monetary judgment would also benefit three more of Davis’ children who are not party to the lawsuit, including daughter Gail Davis, who family members said is a Baltimore police officer.