The Baltimore Police Murder of Tyrone West—and the Hard-Fought Struggle for Justice

”We’re not going to stop till killer cops are in cell blocks!”

May 25, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution/ reporters who have been in Baltimore covering the uprising after the police murder of Freddie Gray have heard horror story after horror story of other people killed and brutalized by the pigs in this city. The names of most of these victims are unknown except by their family and friends. But many in Baltimore know about Tyrone West—his family and their supporters have been waging a determined fight to win justice for Tyrone, and joining with other families and the larger struggle against police murder and brutality.

Tyrone West. Photo: Courtesy of the family of Tyrone West

On July 18, 2013, Tyrone West, a 44-year-old Black man, was driving through a northeast Baltimore neighborhood when he was stopped by an unmarked car with two plainclothes cops. Soon, 11 or more Baltimore cops as well as cops from the Morgan State University campus arrived on the scene and set upon Tyrone, who was unarmed—and he died as a result. Witnesses interviewed by TV news crews said that the cops had pulled Tyrone out of the car by his dreadlocks and viciously pepper-sprayed and beat him, as he cried for help.

The official “investigation” dragged on for months. In December 2013, then-State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein announced that the police had used “objectively reasonable force” against Tyrone West and that no charges would be filed against any of the cops involved.

We had a chance to sit down and talk with Tawanda Jones about the police murder of her brother Tyrone West and the fight that she, her family and others have been waging to demand justice.

“He was beat worse than Rodney King”

Tawanda recalls that July 18, 2013 started out as a “beautiful day” but then “turned into the worst nightmare that I ever, ever experienced in my whole life.” She and her brother had been able to spend some time together to talk and go pick up some dinner. One of the things they discussed was the not-guilty verdict that had just come down in Florida on George Zimmerman, the racist vigilante who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Tyrone asked to borrow Tawanda’s car, a Mercedes-Benz, to pick up a friend who needed a ride—and that was the last time she saw her brother.

Later that night, when Tyrone hadn’t been heard from for a long time, everyone began to worry. Then, Tawanda remembers, her fiancé ran in with the news: “The police killed your brother.” “I remember falling out, the pain was so real,” Tawanda remembers. “I couldn’t fathom it, to the point I screamed so loud that I upset my aunt, and I dropped my phone. The phone went on speaker, and I could hear her with these blood-curdling screams, ‘No! No!’”

She says no one from the police called the family—they had to learn about what happened to Tyrone on the TV news: “It was late-breaking news. They said it was a traffic stop, and you see a green Mercedes Benz in the middle of Kitmore Road. And then I seen witnesses on TV coming up crying, sobbing, saying ‘Oh my god, they didn’t have to beat him like that, he was beat worse than Rodney King.’ He was saying, ‘Help, help, why’re you doing this to me?’ He was beat. He had his driver’s license hanging out the window, and they pulled him out by his dreadlocks. Why did they do that?”

Tawanda Jones, sister of Tyrone West, with Dr. Cornel West. Baltimore, May 11, 2015. (Photo: Justice for Tyrone West Facebook page)

Tawanda says, “I know in Freddie Gray’s case, I noticed that the cops got charged because they didn’t get that man medical treatment, which they should’ve gotten him. Nobody called the ambulance for my brother. The only reason an ambulance came to that scene was because Nicholas David Chapman, who was tasing and pepper-spraying my brother, splashed it back in his eyes, and they called for him... What about my brother? What about his eyes? What about his breathing? What about his life? No one called for him. They let him die like an animal.

“Then they want to act, just like those police were pretending in Eric Garner’s case, the heart-rending scene where he was saying ‘I can’t breathe’ and the paramedics pulled up and they were pretending like they were working on him—I saw the same thing in my brother. My brother was hog-tied, pepper-sprayed, tossed on the ground, worse than an animal.”

Lies and Stonewalling from the Police

Tyrone’s family went down to the police headquarters immediately that night to demand answers. Tawanda says, “They brushed us off and told us to come back tomorrow. They were dealing with a homicide in the city and they would meet with us tomorrow and speak to us. We got no sleep that night—we stayed up all night.”

The next day, July 19, the police came to the family’s house. And immediately, Tawanda says, all kinds of “red flags” went up, pointing to all the lies and cover-ups from the police that continue to this day. “The first thing they asked,” Tawanda remembers, “was, hey Ms. Jones, did your brother have health problems? I’m thinking like, are you kidding me, what do you mean health problems? He was beat to death. Did you or did you not hear the eyewitnesses?” But this question foreshadowed the police cover-up story that would emerge—that Tyrone died not at the hands of the brutal police but because of health problems exacerbated by the summer heat, dehydration, and physically struggling with cops.

One of the cops then pulled her aside and claimed that they had found a small amount of drugs in her car that Tyrone was driving. Tawanda recalls thinking, “Drugs? What are you talking about?! I’m a school teacher. My brother didn’t have drugs, he don’t use drugs. They’re like, ‘Well, we have your car on drug hold—whenever it becomes available we’ll let you know.’... Long story short, that was a lie. They took my car to the impound lot. I still have my car. Anybody know if my car was on a drug hold, they would’ve tore it apart.”

But the prosecutor would later claim, to the family’s face, that one of the cops had noticed Tryone’s pants pulled up and a “bulge” in his socks, supposedly with drugs. Tawanda says, “First of all, my brother had on shorts. To this day, we have never received any of my brother’s property, nothing. Bu he had on black shorts that came to his kneecaps, a white tank top and invisible ankle socks where his ankles were showing. So how do you have a ‘bulge’? And then they never tested for any drugs. If there’s drugs, why not test him and say what it was? It’s a bunch of foolishness. Anything to make my brother look bad and pull up his record—as if that was justifiable to kill him!”

Tawanda and other members of the family went down to the scene of the murder of Tyrone and talked to the neighbors to try to find out more about what happened, since they in no way trusted what the police were telling them. Tawanda says, “Only 11 cops admitted to hitting him and putting their hands on him. But witnesses say they seen 15 to 25 men and women on my brother. They beat him from one side of the street all the way to the other side. And then David Lewis from Morgan [a cop from Morgan State University] sat on my dying brother’s back, pushing his knee until my brother wasn’t breathing, wasn’t talking—wasn’t screaming ‘help, you got me, what’s going on’—none of that mattered anymore, he was gone... Some neighbors said he was screaming ‘Trayvon Martin,’ and I think that’s true because we was just talking about that... That was our last conversation.”

Through their research, the family discovered that the two undercover cops who first stopped Tyrone in the car had almost killed another man, 36-year-old Abdul Salaam, in the same neighborhood just 17 days earlier.

And they also found out that the neighbors living near the scene of Tyrone’s murder had pulled out their cells phones and taken videos of the police attack. But the family has never seen any of the videos. Does Tawanda think the police have the videos? “Oh, yeah. I know the police got them... Witnesses said that the police had come, knocked on their doors and demanded their cell phones, while [Police] Commissioner Batts sat on the corner. He was at the end of the block while his officers were knocking on doors, making them give their cell phones. So we know this to be true—there’s videos out there. I want to see the videos. We know that if it happened the way they’re saying it, that video would’ve been shown day one. If he was fighting officers and all that, they would’ve showed that. Instantly.”

Trying to uncover these videos and other information has been part of the struggle for justice for Tyrone—and it has not been easy. Tawanda explains, “It took them 154 days just to literally sit down with my family to tell us that the preliminary autopsy report stated that my brother died of cardiac arrest due to dehydration exacerbated by the heat—the hot weather, and the struggle with the police officer. I’m thinking like, you gotta be kidding me, there’s a water bottle on the top of my car, he just drunk a whole bottle of water, I saw him. My brother had no health issues. Just had a physical, healthy as an ox, believed in eating right, exercising, things of that nature.”

An “independent” investigation was, says Tawanda is nothing but “foolishness”: “All they did was regurgitate what the officers said. None of the witnesses’ statements on there. You have a dozen or more credible witnesses, ranging from 80 years old to an 8-year-old kid that saw a man brutally get beat. There were video footage—where are the videos? Just like with Freddie Gray, we know for a fact that had that video not been produced, we wouldn’t even be here now.”

And, says Tawanda, “To this day, 664 days, we still don’t have any autopsy pictures. How do you say it’s a complete autopsy with no autopsy pictures? And it took 154 days just for you to come out with the first initial report that we got that said my brother died of positional asphyxiation. A 300-pound man sat on my brother’s back. My brother was brutally murdered. He was already handcuffed, then pepper-sprayed, tased, tossed to the ground.”

“They took something from my family they cannot give back”

Revolution/ asks Tawanda what Tyrone was like. She says, “My brother was a father. He was an artist. He was a grandfather as well. At the time of his death he only got to meet one grandson, but he had a new granddaughter born into this world and he never got a chance to embrace. He was a church man—he went to church every Sunday, he never missed a day of church. He was a glue to my family, he kept my family together. He made sure we was OK. He was a gentle man, he was soft spoken. He was the love of our life. They took something from this family they cannot give back.”

“And that’s the reason we do what we do,” Tawanda says. “We started something called West Wednesday where we protest week after week—because we don’t want another family feeling this pain. Because we know it’s so real, it never goes away. It never goes away.”

“It’s been such a struggle”

Revolution/ asks Tawanda about the fight for justice for Tyrone, and working with other families of victims of police murder. She talks about going to various town hall meetings and talking to officials, including the mayor—and being given empty promises and the run-around. They took the information they had uncovered about the two cops who stopped Tyrone—how they had almost beaten another man to death nearby and even had “peace orders” (a type of restraining order) on them but were still out on the streets—to the prosecutor, who told them those were “administrative issues” that were a matter for “civil cases.” Tawanda’s response: “What are you talking about? We want real justice, where these officers go to jail!... And even with real justice, that still ain’t going to stop the pain. When we get these killer cops in jail, then I can grieve. Right now I can’t grieve.”

Tawanda tells us, “It’s been such a struggle. Ever since this happened, like I said, week after week we protest. I done stood with Eric Garner’s family in New York. I’ve meet Michael Brown’s family. Shantel Davis’s family in New York. I’ve met Freddie Gray’s mom before her son died—we were out there protesting, praying together, holding hands, walking through the Gilmor neighborhood. I was saying, ‘He’s gonna make it, God is good.’ And then turned around next day, he didn’t make it. It’s really sad. I’m tired of meeting grieving families. But I do so that people can know it’s real. Had we not been protesting, we would’ve never met Abdul Salaam, who was brutally almost killed by those same two cops. And we met another young lady that David Lewis had brutalized at the school—he’s a Morgan State cop, he was up there beating on a woman, almost broke her neck...

“Ever since I’ve been fighting for justice for my brother, I’ve been targeted. I went to Al Sharpton’s protest, and all I was chanting was what I always chant: ‘We won’t stop until killer cops are in cell blocks.’ Fox 45 (TV news) lied on me—they edited what I said, and said that I said ‘kill cops’ and linked me to the two cops brutally murdered in New York City. That went viral... But my brother’s death couldn’t make national news.”

“This fight is real”

Tawanda says, “I know everyone’s into different religions, and I respect anybody and everybody’s religion, even if you don’t have one.” But, she says, “What helps me through this whole process is my strong faith in God. I’m a Christian woman.”

She adds, “And this fight is real. We done lost loved ones. You could say it’s the will of God. But when something brutal like that happens, it’s no will of God. These police are supposed to be heroes. But when something happens to me and I say, I’m going to call the police—why do I have to worry if they’re going to kill me? We live in a time when you got to worry about the cops and the robbers. It’s disgusting.”

We say to Tawanda that these cops are not serving and protecting the people—they’re serving and protecting the system that is oppressing people and bringing down all kinds of horrors on people here and around the world. She agrees that the police do not serve and protect the people, and says, “I’m here to be the voice of the people that can’t speak, and that’s the victims of police murder. It’s not a ‘Tyrone thing.’ It’s a worldwide thing... It can happen to you. It will happen to you if you don’t take seriously this thing that’s happening.”

Tawanda talks about how she has learned, through the experience of waging this fight, that the mainstream media misleads and outright lies to people. She gives as an example the case of Anthony Anderson, a 46-year-old Black man who died from internal injuries in 2012 after being tackled by a Baltimore cop who claimed Anderson was dealing drugs—how she at first believed the accounts in the news that told the police story that justified the killing.

“If you don’t know,” Tawanda says, “you’ll believe that media that this is a ‘bad guy.’ The victims are not the bad guy. Me learning and seeing what they did to my brother and making him out to be the boogey monster—that’s what they did to little Tamir Rice, playing in the playground. God damn! God damn! A baby—12 years old. I have a 12-year-old son. It’s disgusting.”

Tawanda ends our interview with these words: “To me, I just feel like the poor man’s reality is police brutality. Because it’s not happening to rich people, I’m sorry, unless they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you know, and they get stereotyped and they look like us and they get gunned down like us. But if they’re just living their normal life—this is not happening in Roland Park or places like that. It’s different. And I feel like a slave, and it’s like slave catchers....

“That’s why we’ve been doing this—we’ve been doing it with or without the media around us. If it’s 5 people, 10 people, 500, or 5,000—we’re not going to stop till killer cops are in cell blocks. Till people are held accountable for their actions.”

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