A Baltimore police officer was suspended by the department Saturday after a viral video emerged showing him repeatedly punching a man in the face before taking him to the ground.
Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said he was “deeply disturbed” by the video, and that the incident is under investigation.
“The officer involved has been suspended while we investigate the totality of this incident,” Tuggle said. “Part of our investigation will be reviewing body worn camera footage.”
Tuggle did not identify the officer or the man who was punched, and the department would not say how the interaction between the two began. People on the street said the man who was punched was taken away by police, but police did not immediately answer questions as to whether the man had been arrested, and if so, on what charges.
Tuggle asked anyone who witnessed the incident to contact the Office of Professional Responsibility at 410-396-2300.
The incident occurred Saturday outside Q’s Bar and Liquors in the 2600 block of E. Monument St. in East Baltimore.
The video shows the officer pushing the man against a wall, with his hand on the man’s chest, and then the man pushing the officer’s hand off his chest. It is then that the officer starts swinging.
The officer throws repeated punches, shoves the man onto rowhouse steps and continues beating him until the man lands on the pavement. The man appears to be bleeding when he gets to the ground.
The man being punched appears to try to deflect some of the officer’s punches but does not punch back.
A second officer briefly places his hand on the arm of the man being punched as the man tries to avoid the blows but does not appear to try to stop the first officer from throwing punches.
Police did not answer questions about the status of the second officer pending the investigation.
Several men on Monument Street at the time — who asked not to be named, for fear of reprisal from the police for discussing the matter — said the officer who threw the punches knew the man he punched from prior interactions, and that they believed he was targeting him.
They said the officer is young and had previously worked foot patrol along the corridor, but recently began working out of a car.
The men said the officer stopped the man on Saturday without good reason, which is why the man was talking back to the officer before the officer started throwing punches.
“He knows his rights, and he felt as though his rights were being violated, and he took offense to that,” one man said.
That the officer responded physically was completely out of line, and must result in serious consequences, the men said.
“We want justice. We don’t want things like that to happen. We want him to be held accountable, and not no paid suspension,” one man said.
Police would not say whether the officer’s suspension was paid or unpaid.
Mayor Catherine Pugh echoed Tuggle in a statement late Saturday, in which she also called the encounter between the officer and the man “disturbing.” She said she was in touch with Tuggle and had “demanded answers and accountability.”
“We are working day and night to bring about a new era of community-based, Constitutional policing and will not be deterred by this or any other instance that threatens our efforts to re-establish the trust of all citizens in the Baltimore Police Department,” the mayor said.
City Councilman Brandon Scott said the department did the right thing by suspending the officer. Scott said he spoke with Tuggle after seeing the video, and the commissioner assured him it would be handled appropriately. He said the officer should be fired.
“You see that video and you see what we are trying to prevent in the police department,” said Scott, who is chair of the council’s public safety committee. “It goes against the consent decree and the work we’re trying to do to rebuild trust between the community and the police department.”
The city entered into a federal consent decree in 2017 after the U.S. Justice Department found officers routinely violated people’s constitutional rights.
The justice department’s investigation began soon after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray after injuries he suffered in police custody. The 2015 incident became a flashpoint in the national conversation about police brutality.
Despite increased oversight, the city’s police department has had numerous scandals in recent months, including allegations of police misconduct.
Police said late last month that they were reviewing a different piece of viral civilian footage depicting a tense interaction with officers. The video shows a young boy being forcefully brought to the ground and handcuffed by an officer.
As the officer puts the boy in a police car, he is recorded saying, “I’m about to send this kid to the [expletive] hospital.”
Jurors recently indicted Officer Carlos Rivera-Martinez on charges of first-degree assault and misconduct in office for an incident that took place July 5, 2016. The officer allegedly beat up a young man, then 16 years old, as the boy was walking downtown on his way to his brother’s house.
Ben Jealous, the Democratic candidate for governor and a former head of the NAACP, condemned the officer’s actions in a statement, saying the video “shows just how far community-police relations have fallen in Baltimore, as well as the work that must be done in partnership with city officials to restore trust.”
Jealous said he was “heartened” that the officer was promptly suspended.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote on Twitter that there “must be a swift, immediate, and definitive response” to the officer’s actions from Pugh and the police department. “This is a flagrant violation of the letter & spirit of the consent decree. This is not what reform looks like.”
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the union that represents rank-and-file officers, also said he believed Tuggle took “the appropriate action” by suspending the officer pending an investigation.
Ryan said there might be more to the story that he doesn’t know, but that “at first view” the video of the incident showed “inexcusable behavior” on the part of the officer that the department “can’t tolerate.”
Ryan said officers are allowed to use force when individuals are resisting arrest, but the man in the video did not appear to be acting in an aggressive manner.
“I’d like to believe that there is more to it, but obviously, it really makes us look bad,” Ryan said. “That’s something we don’t need right now. We don’t need another black eye.”