Inside her Northeast Baltimore home, Tawanda Jones proudly shows off vibrant artwork that decorates the vestibule that leads to the front entrance. Portraits of prominent black figures like Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party wrap around the panel walls. These are the remnants left behind of her brother Tyrone West, a 44-year-old father of three who died in a struggle with Baltimore City Police officers 2013 after a traffic stop. West was driving Jones’s vehicle when he was pulled over by police.
“I could have said‘no’ (in reference to loaning her brother her car) and maybe that could have saved his life,” said Jones when asked what, if anything, she thought she could have done to prevent her brother’s death.
In this Oct. 21, 2015 picture, Tawanda Jones poses for a photograph in Baltimore. Jones’ brother, Tyrone West, died under murky circumstances after an encounter with Baltimore police in July 2013. Since then, Jones has been demonstrating weekly against police abuse, two years before Freddie Grays death sparked protests and riots and led the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation into allegations of excessive force and unwarranted stops. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Life wouldn’t be the same for Jones after the death of her brother. The once self-described `quiet person’ became a well-known advocate for police reform in the span of four years.
Shortly following the death of West, Jones along with family members coordinated weekly rallies now known as “West Wednesdays” to protest against then Baltimore City State’s attorney Gregg Bernstein’s decision to not hold the police officers criminally responsible. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner concluded West died from a heart condition and dehydration. West’s family commissioned an autopsy review which concluded West died from positional asphyxiation.
“When my brother got killed it changed my life forever,” said Jones as she sat in her living room. “It pulled something out of me I didn’t even know existed.”
The family of West filed a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging the police were responsible for misconduct and excessive force. City officials announced a plan to pay $600,000. State officials agreed to pay $400,00, bringing the total amount of $1 million. The $1 million settlement was finalized last week, however, Jones has opted out of the agreement in order to continue to speak out against the officers (there were as many as 12 officers involved in West’s arrest that lead to his death, from multiple law enforcement agencies),involved and police brutality in general.
“I had to be forced to say am I going to keep my name on something that can jeopardize some hush money for my brother’s kids or am I going to take my name off and continue on doing what I am going to do,” said Jones. “I had to take my name off of there.”
The settlement agreement with city officials includes a non disparagement clause prohibiting family members from making remarks against the police officers involved and the agency.
“She was just a personal representative of the estate so there was not really an issue there,” said A. Dwight Pettit, the attorney representing West’s family. “But to be absolutely sure that issue didn’t present itself it would be best, with her consent, to remove her altogether from the litigation process.”
The non-disparagement clause in the settlement agreement has prompted Jones to partner with the ACLU of Maryland to take further action.
“The gag orders required by the Baltimore Police Department when settling misconduct cases are a serious barrier to transparency and accountability,” said Meredith Curtis in a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “The gag orders force victims of police brutality and their families to make the insane choice of whether to give up their First Amendment right to tell their story in order to get some measure of justice.”
In the statement, the ACLU of Maryland also said they were going to partner with Jones to do a public education campaign to raise awareness on the impact of the gag orders.
“They should still be able to talk about what happened to their love ones and call these killer cops out,” said Jones. “That’s why I’m trying to work with the ACLU now…to get this gag order piece lifted, completed off where everybody and anybody can talk about their love ones.”