I was recently on a driving tour of Cherry Hill with two community activists, a husband and wife team who work with youth in the isolated Baltimore neighborhood, when a police cruiser began to follow us. We were on our way to meet a long-time resident and organizer and parked the car in front of the management office of the Cherry Hill Homes.
The police cruiser was still following us, so when we all exited the vehicle, the driver, a Black male, turned towards the service vehicle, held his hands out by his sides with open palms faced toward the officers so that they could see he was not holding a weapon, and asked, “Is there a problem, officer?”
At this point, a rather large male officer, also Black, rushed toward us and got right in the face of my tour guide.
“If you’re going to wave over at me, I’m going to come right up to you,” declared the officer.
I had seen this sort of behavior before. The zero to sixty unprovoked hostility. The apparent need to demonstrate toughness and a lack of fear. This was textbook teenage angst, the over exuberance of misplaced male aggression I thought I left behind in high school.
The recently released video of Baltimore City police officer Vincent Cosom chasing down and assaulting Kollin Truss after the two had a verbal exchange on North Avenue brought me back to this experience in Cherry Hill. Here, in this disturbing video, was another Baltimore police officer with an apparent chip on his shoulder who could not see it fit to let a man who was clearly intoxicated simply walk away after he had insulted him.
More telling than the damning video footage, however, was the text of the incident report Cosom filed in the aftermath of his arrest of Cosom on that June night, and released to the media by the Baltimore Police Department once the video surfaced.
The report describes the verbal altercation and then claims Truss pushed his female companion, presumably the woman seen in the video holding onto Truss’s arm and attempting to walk him away from the police.
“At this time I went to place the male under arrest and he got into a fighting stance and clenched his fist, me and the male got into a physical altercation due to me being in fear of my safety and I received a punch to the body. After altercation and more units arriveing [sic] on scene, the male was placed under arrest.”
If you have seen the video then you know the canyon that separates this account from what the security footage reveals. This speaks not only to the behavior of the officer involved, but also to the reliability of official reports and accounts provided by the Baltimore Police Department to the public.
It would be impossible to read this incident report and not feel Cosom was justified in placing Truss under arrest that night. A fighting stance? Clenched fist? Sounds like Cosom was justified in fearing for his safety and defending himself.
Only the video shows something drastically different, something that speaks to the utterly frayed relationship between Baltimore’s communities of color and the police. Those residents see the sort of behavior depicted in the video, only in real time and on a regular basis, not just when a media outlet posts it on their website and they view it from the security of their suburban home in the county.
They also, however, see the media reports, which inevitably rely heavily on official accounts, and which tell drastically different stories than the ones they witness in person, and into which I got a brief and limited glimpse during my tour of Cherry Hill.
Last month, an independent review board released its report into the death of Tyrone West, a Black man who died as police attempted to place him into custody. Many in the community believe West was beaten to death, but the text of the report read’s much like Cosom’s account, leaving little room for second guessing the behavior of officers involved in the incident, and leading inevitably to the conclusion that the officers largely acted reasonably and that West was largely the cause of his own death—which we are to believe was caused by his over exertion in his attempts to flee police.
That the independent review board had no actual subpoena authority suggests they too were largely left to rely on official accounts and the willingness of witnesses to testify regarding West’s arrest and death, the sort of community cooperation that is rarely forthcoming in a place like Baltimore City.
In the case of Cosom, the BPD has suspended the officer and is conducting an ongoing internal investigation that began before the video of the incident surfaced. But in thinking about that investigation, and the broader credibility of the Baltimore police vis-a-vis the community it ostensibly serves, the question is begged: had the video not come out, would that internal investigation more likely have resembled the independent review board report into West’s death or the violent images that finally compelled the BPD to remove Cosom from active duty?