A high-ranking official in the Baltimore police union with a history of making controversial statements — and getting disciplined for it — has once again landed in hot water, after suggesting protesters of a Maryland Fraternal Order of Police conference at the Inner Harber on Sunday were “thugs” involved in violence.
Lt. Victor Gearhart, first vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 in Baltimore, was suspended by Police Commissioner Kevin Davis on Monday morning after writing the comments in an email that he sent to the entire police department using his official department email account, according to sources familiar with the incident who were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
In the email, Gearhart said union members attending the state FOP conference should “expect more bad behavior from the THUGS OF BALTIMORE,” referring to the protesters — a dozen of whom were arrested for trespassing at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore on Sunday.
“On the bright side maybe they will stop killing each other while they are protesting us,” Gearhart wrote.
The biennial FOP conference runs through Wednesday, according to an online agenda.
Sunday’s protest was not violent, police said. Those arrested had gathered at the hotel to protest the conference following the release last week of a scathing report by the Justice Department that found Baltimore police routinely violate individuals’ constitutional rights. Protesters, including from the groups Baltimore Bloc and the Black Youth Project 100, also wore shirts that read “Justice 4 Korryn Gaines,” referring to a 23-year-old woman who was fatally shot by Baltimore County police in her Randallstown apartment earlier this month.
Gaines was killed by police fire, and her 5-year-old son was wounded, after county police responded to her apartment to serve her with a warrant for failing to appear in court on a traffic violation and other misdemeanor charges. Police say Gaines refused to come out of her apartment, threatened officers and raised a shotgun at them. Activists have demanded more information about the circumstances and the actions of police.
T.J. Smith, a Baltimore Police spokesman, said Davis was “outraged” by the email Gearhart sent, which is now the subject of an internal investigation. Smith said he could not confirm or comment on personnel matters, including an officer’s suspension.
Editor’s Note: Earlier story on the protest is posted below.
A dozen demonstrators were charged with trespassing Sunday after they chained themselves to an escalator inside an Inner Harbor hotel to protest the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police on the first night of the union’s four-day conference in Baltimore.
The protest included references to last week’s blistering Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department, which detailed a pattern of civil rights violations and racially discriminatory policing.
It followed riots Saturday in Milwaukee over a fatal police shooting, the latest such incident to stoke unrest between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
Those arrested at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore on Sunday, and some of the roughly 60 other protesters outside, wore shirts that read “Justice 4 Korryn Gaines.” Gaines was the 23-year-old hairdresser who was shot to death in her Randallstown home by a Baltimore County police officer this month after a nearly seven-hour standoff.
Police say they attempted to serve Gaines a warrant for failing to appear in court to respond to an alleged traffic violation. Police say she refused to come out of her apartment, threatened to kill officers and raised a shotgun at them. Police say a tactical officer shot her. Her 5-year-old son was injured by police gunfire.
Protesters Sunday demanded to know the names of the officers who shot Gaines and her son, as well as those of the officers whose conduct was described in the Department of Justice report.
Protest organizer Ralikh Hayes called the police union a “good ol’ boys club that prioritizes the legal protection of officers over citizens and public safety and justice.”
Hayes detailed the demands of the “Vision for Black Lives Platform” outside the hotel. He said the union’s 79 lodges in Maryland should be disbanded and turned into community centers or shelters for the homeless. Barring that, he said, additional community oversight is needed on their contracts and negotiations with local governments.
Hayes said citizens must be included on internal police department trial boards, and the officers whose unconstitutional and inappropriate actions — such as strip-searching individuals on the street for no reason — were detailed in the Justice Department report must be fired.
As of Wednesday, no officers had been terminated or disciplined as a result of the Justice Department report.
Davis said last week he and his command staff would be going through the report extensively and be paying attention to any information outlining specific misconduct.
“If in fact that information is new to us and deserves an investigation, then we’ll absolutely consider doing that,” he said.
The protest group also seeks divestment and demilitarization of police.
“Our vision is a world where safety and security is not dependent on the enforcers of the state but rather where all people have access to quality food, shelter, health care and education and where racial, economic and gender equality flourish,” Hayes said.
The state Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to a request for comment.
Officers were called to the lobby of the Hyatt at about 1:45 p.m. Members of the Baltimore Bloc and the Black Youth Project 100 protest groups had chained themselves to a railing and were refusing to leave, Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith said.
Smith called the protest a nonviolent act of civil disobedience. Because it took place on private property, he said, those involved would be charged with trespassing.
They were being processed at Central Booking Sunday afternoon.
Baltimore Police identified them Monday as Zachary Zwagil, 30, of Pikesville; Justin Johnson, 18, of Ellicott City; Payam Omid Sohrabi, 26, of Columbia; Kerridwen Rice, 39, of Montgomery County; Asha Ransby-Sporn, 22, of Chicago; Brendan Orsinger, 34, Tracye Redd, 24, and Jonathan Lykes, 26, of Washington, D.C.; and Samuel Didnato, 24, Marcella Largess, 30, Margaret Rice, 21, and Lenora Knowles, 27, of Baltimore.
Police said they were a 26-year-old Columbia man; an 18-year-old Ellicott City man; a 30-year-old Pikesville man; a 22-year-old Chicago woman; a 39-year-old Montgomery County woman; three Washington residents, a 24-year-old woman and two men, ages 34 and 26; and four Baltimoreans, a 24-year-old man and three women, ages 30, 27 and 21.
The rest of the protesters cheered for them as they were loaded into police wagons, followed them to Central Booking and set up online fundraisers to pay for their bail.
The biennial FOP conference opened Sunday night with a welcome reception at the hotel, according to the agenda. The week’s events include a happy hour on Monday, an Orioles game Tuesday and a dinner Wednesday.
The Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, a Baltimore pastor and activist, said protesters were taking issue with the Fraternal Order of Police over comments by Baltimore lodge officials after the Freddie Gray riots last year and the dismissal of charges this month against all remaining officers indicted in his arrest and death.
Gray, 25, died last year after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. Six officers were charged in his arrest and death. Three were acquitted in bench trials, and State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby dropped the charges against the rest.
“For us, quite frankly, the Fraternal Order of Police is an old boy’s network, it’s a segregated country club, it has no African-American or non-white members in its ranks of leadership,” Witherspoon said. “We do not believe that a organization of this particular capacity should be able to function in Baltimore City.”
The state Fraternal Order of Police has two men of color on its leadership board: President Ismael Vince Canales and Darryl Jones, the union’s elected conductor, who organized this week’s convention. Both are from Prince George’s County.
Witherspoon later clarified his comments, saying he was referring to the union’s Baltimore chapter, Lodge 3. The city police union president, Gene Ryan, did not respond to a request for comment.
In Milwaukee, which is among the nation’s most racially segregated cities, a group of about 100 protesters threw stones, set buildings on fire and surged against a line of police officers. Police said one officer was hit in the head with a brick thrown through the window of a squad car and was hospitalized.
Milwaukee police officers earlier had pulled over a “suspicious vehicle,” and two people fled in different directions, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said. A six-year veteran officer chased one of the men, a 23-year-old identified by his family as Sylville Smith. Police say he was carrying a gun, and refused to drop it.
The officer shot him twice, in the chest and arm, Barrett said.
Police Chief Edward Flynn refused to identify the officer but said he is black, according to the Associated Press.
The Baltimore protest in the sweltering Sunday afternoon sun was punctuated by the familiar Black Lives Matter call-and-response chants of “This is what democracy looks like!” and “No justice, no peace! Jail killer police!”
Less familiar was the backdrop: Hotel guests and others in all manner of costume were in town for the Otakon anime convention at the Baltimore Convention Center. Several who walked past looked as startled by the protest as onlookers often are by their cartoon costumes.
The protest was interrupted for a few moments just before 3 p.m., when smoke began billowing over from an exterior walkway above the hotel parking garage. Two fire engines responded and firefighters quickly put out a fire.
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector and The Chicago Tribune and Associated Press contributed to this report.
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