A civil trial against three Baltimore City police officers, who allegedly brutalized a Northeast Baltimore man during an arrest in 2013, began last week. Fate forever links that arrest to the death of a man while in police custody a few weeks later, who was a symbol of the Baltimore law enforcement reform movement, before Freddie Gray.
On July 1, 2013 Abdul Salaam was nearing his home in Northeast Baltimore with his three-year old son in the back seat of his car, when he glimpsed an image in his rearview mirror most Black men loathe, a police vehicle approaching from behind.
According to Salaam, the next few moments would quickly escalate from mere dread to his life being imperiled just steps from the sanctity of his home, while his little boy watched in horror.
Salaam (who is the plaintiff in the civil case along with his young son), now 37, says police jumped from their vehicle with their guns drawn and began yelling at him. He says he put his hands out the window of his car holding his wallet and seconds later he was yanked from his car, dragged across the ground and dumped on his head, twice.
By this time several of his neighbors had emerged from their homes to protest Salaam’s treatment and videotape the beating. Eventually, he was handcuffed and shackled and taken to Northeast police precinct and then to a hospital. He was charged with not wearing his seatbelt, talking on a cell phone while driving and (of course) disturbing the peace.
In a court proceeding in October 2013, prosecutors didn’t pursue any of the charges by police. Salaam is alleging assault and battery, false arrest, false imprisonment and the violation of his civil rights as he seeks damages.
As traumatic and life changing this ordeal has been for Salaam and his son, the deadly sequel connected to his arrest and alleged abuse in his backyard played out less than three weeks later on July 18, 2013. That was the day two of the three officers who arrested Salaam, Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz and Nicholas David Chapman initially engaged Tyrone West, 44, near an intersection in the 1300 block of Kitmore Road in Northeast Baltimore, not far from Salaam’s home.
West died on that day after being beaten with batons, kicked, punched and maced by up to a dozen law enforcement officers, including Ruiz and Chapman during what has been described as a wild melee that escalated after a so-called, “routine,” traffic stop. West’s family members and others believe if Ruiz and Chapman had been disciplined — specifically assigned to desk duty — in the wake of the arrest and alleged assault of Salaam, West could be alive today.
Tawanda Jones, West’s younger sister — who had loaned her brother the Mercedes Benz automobile he was driving the day he died — has emerged as the family’s leader as they pursue justice for their loved one, and an activist against police brutality. She has been in attendance every day of Salaam’s trial and for the first time she encountered in person the two officers she blames most for her brother’s death.
“It’s basically been surreal, I actually never thought I would have enough courage to look them dead in the eyes,” Jones said.
“The first day I saw them and connected a face and saw how big these officers are, because at the end of the day they made up this foolishness about how big my brother was as if it was justification for them to brutally murder my brother,” she added. “This all could have been prevented if they had taken Abdul Salaam seriously.”
Jones and her family contend it’s been more than 970 days and counting (since West’s death) that they have been seeking justice for their loved one.
“Even though Ruiz, Chapman and all those killer cops are still walking the beat, that brutally murdered my brother, we’re walking the beat with them and we’re letting people know this is what happened, this is what they did and this was not right,” she said.
Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday, 5-7 p.m. on WEAA 88.9.