Tyrone West Hearing: To Be Continued

Members of the Tyrone West family gathering outside of city hall Wednesday. Tawanda Jones (second from right) said the absence of representatives from the state medical examiner's office at the hearing means they are trying to cover up something. (photo by P. Kenneth Burns/WYPR)
Members of the Tyrone West family gathering outside of city hall Wednesday. Tawanda Jones (second from right) said the absence of representatives from the state medical examiner’s office at the hearing means they are trying to cover up something. (photo by P. Kenneth Burns/WYPR)

A city council committee has put a “to be continued” sign on its probe into the death of a Baltimore man in police custody and why it took so long to complete the autopsy.

The Public Safety committee recessed the hearing Wednesday night to wait for State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein to complete his investigation into the death last summer of Tyrone West.

West got into a struggle with police after they stopped him for a traffic violation in Northeast Baltimore in July. He slipped into what officers called “medical distress” and was taken to a nearby hospital where he died.

The state medical examiner took nearly five months to deliver an autopsy to State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, far longer than the standard 90 days according to a city council resolution, which angered city council members. Bernstein released a statement on the report the day before the committee was to meet. It said West died “from cardiac arrhythmia” brought on by heart abnormalities and “complicated by dehydration during police restraint.”

Councilman Warren Branch, the committee chairman, said after the hearing the members would “wait for the investigation from the state’s attorney’s office and the police department” before reconvening.

Despite the criticism aimed its way, no one from the medical examiner’s office showed up at the hearing. A spokesman said they were forbidden by state law from discussing the autopsy until the investigation into West’s death was completed.

Tawanda Jones, West’s sister, charged the agency is trying to cover up something. “All they’re showing is what they want to be announced,” she said referring to Bernstein’s statement, “I want to see the whole entire report, so I’m not satisfied at all.”

Jones and her family wore red T-shirts with “Tyrone West” on the front and “One Man” on the back to the hearing.

The hearing attracted two candidates for statewide office from Prince George’s County—The Rev. Delman Coates, Del. Heather Mizeur’s running mate on her gubernatorial ticket, and Del. Aisha Braveboy, who is running for Attorney General.

Coates said Jones asked him to attend the hearing. He called the amount of time taken to complete the autopsy “a great injustice…It’s in everyone’s best interest that we resolve this matter,” he said. “It’s in the community’s best interest; it’s in the city council’s best interest; it’s also in the police department’s best interest.”

Braveboy said the Legislative Black Caucus, which she chairs, held a hearing last month in Annapolis probing police treatment of minorities, in particular African-American men in Baltimore. Witnesses at that hearing and the city council hearing complained that the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights allows police to shield themselves from investigation.

Braveboy said she is looking to bring the issue up during the next General Assembly session, which starts in January. “We have to really look at that to determine whether or not that’s working for the best interest of the citizens of the state who (officers are) supposed to protect and serve,” she said.

Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, who served 26 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, said California’s system allows officers to be questioned more easily than in Maryland. “The laws here in Maryland that govern when an administrative case of an officer can be done by their agency is very specific and in some way restrictive,” he said.

Story originally posted at news.wypr.org on December 12, 2013 with accompanying audio of WYPR’s Kenneth Burns joining News Director Joel McCord to talk about what happened at the Tyrone West hearing airing the same day.

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