Running from the Cops: What Happened to Jay Cook?
In this Reveal/WYPR collaboration, we look at two cases of running from cops that reveal some truths about the intersection of policing and the courts.
Reporter Mary Rose Madden brings us the story of Jay Cook. He died in 2007 after a foot chase by Baltimore cops. When his parents asked why, they faced a wall of bureaucracy and evasion.
The DOJ report
The Justice Department came to Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray's death. For a year, they investigated the Baltimore Police Department. When they were done, they announced the BPD has a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing in low-income, predominately black neighborhoods. The report said rather than the work of a "few bad apples," the abuses were systemic. Between the years 2010-2015, there were thousands of unjustified arrests and there were tens of thousands of pedestrian stops in black neighborhoods where the police officers lacked reasonable suspicion.
Who decides what is suspicious behavior? Are officers to be trusted to go on a hunch? And how does that effect poor neighborhoods in Baltimore?
In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in Illinois vs. Wardlow that if someone in a neighborhood with a high crime rate makes eye contact with a police officer and runs...reasonable suspicion has been met. The officer has the right to chase, stop, and frisk.
Fast forward some 15 years and foot pursuits are a common sight on the streets in many inner cities with sometimes deadly results: see Walter Scott in Charleston, Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Jay Cook in this episode of Reveal. So, it may not be surprising to learn that the DOJ also found a large number of foot chases by the Baltimore Police Department.
To the cops, Jay was just another black guy, running in Baltimore. And that made him look suspicious. To his family, he was their kid, their love--scared for his life.
On August 14, 2007, 25-year-old Jay Cook left his apartment on North Fulton Avenue to get a money order. He was going to pay his rent. He could have walked the few blocks, but he was skittish – just a week earlier, he was robbed at gunpoint in this same alley. The robbers fired a gun. The bullet went through the bedroom window of Cook's 18-month-old daughter.
“It’s by the grace of God that we weren’t home,” says Linda "Precious" Hammond, Cook's fiancé. “After that incident, he was so scared. I couldn't even go to the corner store to get some milk or a loaf of bread." And so, Jay was getting into his car, with a wad of cash when he saw two people in the alley.
Jay took off. But the figures he saw weren't robbers, they were police. Accounts differ about whether or not they were in plain clothes or uniform. And Jay had had some brushes with the law in the past. So, even if Jay knew they were cops, he still might have run – it’s not uncommon for people in low-income neighborhoods to run when they see the police.
Police radio dispatch: "Foot chase going south on Fulton. Black male. White t-shirt."
Later, police reported that Cook was holding his arm "tightly against his body" which to them, signaled that he was concealing a gun.
Radio police dispatch: "He's on Franklin and Fulton."
After weaving through streets and alleys, Cook reached an overpass with a chain link fence. He squeezed through a narrow opening and clung to the fence. 70 feet below him was Route 40, which runs through West Baltimore.
Radio police dispatch: "1800 block of Franklin. He's jumping down onto the underpass of 40."
Meanwhile, Precious wondered what was taking Jay so long. She saw Jay’s car in the back alley and ran outside. She says one of Jay's friends came running up the alley, in tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he told her. Precious jumped in Jay's car and followed the police sirens and helicopters to the overpass.
The next thing she knew, she says, she looked down and saw Jay’s shoe. “I see a sheet, he was covered up. I see his hand outside the sheet," Precious said. "A police officer asked me do I know who this person is, and they took the sheet off him."
It was Jay - he had dropped to Route 40 and been hit by a car.
But what happened in the minutes before Jay died?
The family searches for answers
Precious said the only thing she was told was that Jay "fit the description of a drug dealer that robbed somebody." Jay's father, John Gideon Cook III, says he and his wife went to the police station, but "couldn't even get an incident report. They kept on stalling me [saying] 'Well, we're still working on it. We haven't completed it yet.'"
He and his wife wrote letters to their congressman, the governor, the state's attorney and the FBI. They even filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
[We were] asking everybody to help us figure out what took place here," he said. "We didn't know what happened, but all we knew was that our son was no longer here."
Eventually, the Cook family received the incident report. And in 2009, the Cooks hired Olu Abiona, a lawyer who'd been recommended by a relative. The statute of limitations in Maryland is three years, so Abiona had to work fast.
Abiona hired a private investigator who found two witnesses. They said they saw what happened at the fence the day Jay died. So, armed only with the witnesses and the police report, Abiona filed suit in federal court in Baltimore on February 16, 2010. He charged then-Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld, Officers Dwayne Green and Raymond Howard – the officers named in the incident report, and the City of Baltimore with civil rights violations.
The pre-trial hearing
In most pre-trial hearings, both sides are supposed to turn over evidence to each other by a mutually determined date. This is called 'discovery.' But the police department didn't turn over much at all.
So Abiona filed a subpoena to get them to produce:
- Everything they had related to the Cook case
- The department's policy and procedures on excessive force
- The department's policy and procedures on stop and frisk
- The department's policy and procedures on how officers determine reasonable suspicion
Abiona said this information was crucial to his case. The police department agreed to provide files relating to Jay's death but they said documents about the policies and procedures were privileged. Judge J. Frederick Motz agreed saying that the police "shouldn't be put to the expense" of assembling the files.
Memo to Counsel by Jamyla Krempel on Scribd
But he went further – saying the police didn't have to turn over the materials related to Jay Cook's death.
"[The judge] strangled discovery! He said 'don't even bother! You don't have to produce anything!'" Abiona said.
While the private investigator found two witnesses to the events that led to Cook's death, only one would testify against the police. Shamika Summers said that she lived across the street from the Route 40 overpass. In her deposition video, she said on the afternoon of August 14th she saw Jay Cook running, with cops chasing after him. She said she saw Cook run onto the overpass.
"He was trying to hide in the bushes on the fence but they saw him. It was a white cop shaking the fence. He was shaking the fence and calling him names. Saying he was a "dumb nigger.""
Shamika identified the "knocker with the red hat on" in pictures police had taken. But that officer, Officer Jared Fried, wasn't named in the lawsuit - and his name doesn't appear in the police incident report either.
The only cops named in the report were Officers Raymond Howard and Dwayne Green.
Officer Howard wrote the report, but in his deposition, he told Abiona that the only person he talked to about the incident was a detective who arrived after Jay's death.
"The information that was given that day was that Officer Green was the person that was chasing the gentleman," Howard said.
In the police report, Officer Green is pinned with chasing Jay to the fence, but in his deposition Green said he wasn't even at the fence.
Officer Howard said he didn't interview Green or any officer who was at the scene before Jay died. He wrote the police report using second hand information.
There was one more deposition, from Officer Hayward Bradley. He testified that he heard the radio dispatch and arrived to see Jay hanging from the ledge of the overpass. He said he tried to rescue Jay.
"I cut my shirt, my pants, getting over the fence. I got over and saw him," Bradley said. "His face was looking up at me. I said 'Hold on, man, I'm coming for you. Just hold on. I reached out to grab him...he fell."
Bradley said that he watched Jay fall. He said he saw the car that ran over him. The speed limit on that portion of Route 40 is 50 miles per hour.
Bradley, who is black, wiped away tears in his testimony. He said he was upset after witnessing Jay's death. He described what another officer said to him.
He said 'you need to calm down. I don't know why you worry. It's just one less drug dealer we got to worry, one less piece of shit.'
That's not all the officer said. Abiona asked Bradley about an earlier statement he’d made, “Did an officer say "It’s just one less nigger we have to deal with?" Bradley testified that an officer did say that as well.
Bradley named two police officers who weren't in the incident report, but who were at the fence. He named Jared Fried and Angela Choi. Bradley seconded Officer Dwayne Green's statement that Green wasn't there.
It became clear that Abiona named the wrong cops in the lawsuit, because the wrong cops were named in the incident report.
Right before the depositions were about to start, hand-written reports from Officers Fried and Choi turned up in Abiona's mailbox. They contradicted what the police report said, so Abiona pressed on in his depositions. However, the date and case file number were written on the top right-hand side. The Police Department had them in their custody the whole time. Abiona said the department was playing games – this evidence should have been handed over during discovery.
Abiona tried to add Fried and Choi to the suit but the judge denied Abiona's motion, citing procedural rules. Abiona had missed the deadline to add new parties to the suit by five weeks. Judge Motz said Abiona had had "ample time" to learn the real identities of the officers involved before filing. He said the plaintiffs "had no one but themselves to blame."
But, Abiona says, the judge should have considered the context for his missing of a deadline.
"The police department intentionally lied! And lied for years. Maybe if they told the truth from the beginning, we wouldn't have missed deadlines."
Abiona did make mistakes - the most glaring was that he sued a black officer for chasing Jay even though witnesses said the cop was WHITE. Of course, Abiona was just going by the information in the police report.
In February of 2011, the judge dismissed the suit. He wrote that Abiona had failed to show “due diligence” and that the police hadn’t acted in a way that “shocked the conscience.”
Officer Howard, who got the facts wrong on the report of Jay's death, left the force a month after the incident to become a police officer in Delaware.
Officer Haywood Bradley, who described another officer's racist comments when Jay died, filed a discrimination suit of his own against the department. That suit was dismissed and he's no longer a policeman.
Officers Jared Fried and Angela Choi are still with the Baltimore City Police Department.
Mary Rose Madden tried to interview Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld, Judge Motz, the lawyers for the Baltimore Police Department, and Officers Fried and Choi but the BPD would not make them available. She sent letters to them, but they never replied.
Jamyla Krempel and Brendan Reynolds contributed to the online version of this story.