Forty-Four Hours in a Baltimore Jail for Filming the Police

Geremy Faulkner, during an interview of his treatment at the hands of the Baltimore police force. (Image: Emily Pelland)Geremy Faulkner, during an interview about his treatment at the hands of the Baltimore police force. (Image: Emily Pelland)

Geremy Faulkner, who turned 18 in February, was videotaping police interaction with protesters and bystanders last month at Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall when he was arrested along with 250 others in the city that day. He spent the next 44 hours in jail, crammed in a small holding cell with as many as twelve men with no beds, no blankets, no pillows, intermittent water (the pipes spewed brown water that the guards suggested they avoid drinking), inadequate food, and no access to an attorney.

He was never charged with a crime.

“I looked on the news and saw [the gathering at the mall] was directly across from me,” he said, explaining how he came to be arrested. He lives right across the street from the mall and saw that protesters were gathering there. The Mondawmin Mall sits near Frederick Douglass High School and is also a transportation hub that sees almost 1,000 students pass through on their way home from school each day as they switch buses, hop on subways, or go to the mall after school.

When there were indications on social media that a protest would happen at the mall, police in riot gear descended to close off roads and shut down buses and subways. Hundreds of students were stranded in the area and tension escalated. “I wanted to know what was going on and thought, the more documentation the better, because this not okay,” Faulkner said. “If an officer would in any way … have reacted to the crowd I was worried it would escalate.… I was taking video on Snapchat.”

Faulkner ended up in an alley recording a police chase; eight officers ran after a kid who appeared to have been looting in the mall. The kid scaled a fence and got away, but Faulkner, who had been standing next to some police officers in the alley for a while, simply stepped back out of the way, he said. “I’m continuing to take video,” he said. “I’m not hindering them. I just moved to the side and put my hands in air and expected them to run past me. But one of the guys in riot gear kicks me in legs. ‘You wanna kill cops?’ he says and he hits me. Then he hits me again. I said ‘What’s your name?’ He says, ‘Shut the fuck up.’” Faulkner said the officer threw him to the ground, put his knee into his back, cuffed him, and stepped on his hand to kick his phone out of the way sending it skittering into the bushes. Faulkner was put into a police van with seven others and taken to Central Booking.

Faulkner, who graduated from Baltimore’s Career Academy High School in January, works part-time at Panera’s and goes to a local community college. He has never been arrested. If he is guilty, it is most likely for the “crime” of being a risk-taking black teen who runs toward trouble for a closer look rather than away from it.

I know, because he is my son’s best friend and had just left our house before being swept up by the police.

Geremy Faulkner is not alone. Baltimore police have swept up hundreds of people and sent them to jail, where they’ve been languishing for days in a legal limbo. Overwhelmed courts have struggled to keep pace, and the public defenders office has shifted into hyperdrive to interview those arrested, find out why they are charged, and assign representation.

Many, like Faulkner, have never been charged, because police, in their rush to return to the streets, neglected to spend the necessary few minutes filling out the forms that explain why they were arrested in the first place. Faulkner’s court record, for example, has no information. The name of the officer who arrested him is missing. The box to check why he was arrested was never filled out. His gender, race, date of birth, and address—all standard information—are absent. According to public defenders appointed to represent most of those arrested, 111 lacked any statement of “probable cause” for their arrest.

Baltimore’s public defenders filed 82 writs of habeas corpus in a single day, arguing that their defendants were being held illegally without being charged—a monumental feat of interviews, paperwork and court appearances that required calling in reinforcements. Forty public defenders from surrounding counties and private attorneys working pro bono stepped in to assist them with the 230 cases. Ultimately, 101 people were released from jail that day, including Faulkner. “There has been a tremendous outpouring of support from other attorneys,” said Natalie Finegar, deputy district public defender. “It’s tremendous resource suck for the PD, but we are not going to cave.”

Indeed, late on a Friday afternoon, on the fourth floor of the courthouse in Judge Charles Peters’s cramped chambers, several public defenders argued on behalf of three clients. The three African-American men sat quietly in jumpsuits as the attorneys insisted that the men had not been charged in a timely manner.

The men had been arrested on April 27—along with many others. According to David Walsh-Little, chief attorney in the Felony Trial Division, they were not charged by a commissioner within 24 hours as prescribed by Maryland’s Code of Judicial Conduct. For that reason, he said, they should be released.

Judge Peters acknowledged that the men had not been charged within 24 hours, but he pointed out that they had seen a commissioner within that time frame. Documents indicated that a commissioner had called the men in to advise them of their right to an attorney. “[It] says nothing else has to happen besides going in front of a judicial officer,” Peters said, consulting the wording of the code.

Walsh-Little argued that it was clearly the intent of the law that the “judicial officer” charge the person and set bail or the rule was pointless. “[They] could comply with the law by bringing the prisoner down and saying, ‘Would you like a ham sandwich?’” he asked, incredulous.

Making matters worse, Maryland’s newly elected Republican governor, Larry Hogan, issued an executive order on April 29 that suspended the 24-hour rule and instead gave the courts 48 hours to bring charges against those jailed. While it is not clear whether Hogan even has the power to intervene in this manner, many detainees were edging close to the 48-hour deadline on that Wednesday when, still never charged with a crime, 101 were finally released.

The three men in Judge Peters’s courtroom were not so lucky. These men had been charged, but not within the 24-hour period. As the clock inched toward 5, the judge adjourned the court, leaving the men in jail for the weekend. “Oh, God, man!” shouted one of them, who was quickly shushed by his lawyer.

Finegar, whose sentiments are echoed by several Baltimore public defenders, worries that such roughshod disregard of defendants’ legal rights only reinforces residents’ belief that justice will not be served. She also thinks the courts should have anticipated the slew of cases from these police sweeps and acted accordingly.

“As I was watching the rioting on TV, I’m thinking I’ve got to be ready to mobilize now,” says Finegar. “Why can’t the rest of the system do that?”

Other public defenders have pointed out that police officers who have desk jobs due to medical reasons, etc., could be enlisted to do the necessary paperwork. The courts could also stay open longer in order to process people.

“If you think the arrest is valid, why would you want to jeopardize it by not doing the paperwork?” asks Finegar.

As I sat talking to Geremy Faulkner on my back porch three days after he was released, the sirens that form an aural backdrop to life in Baltimore these days mingled with the sound of an ice cream truck whining a rendition of “Pop! Goes the Weasel.”

Geremy said his arrest felt random.

“Originally, I never really wanted to a part of any of this,” he said, referring to the Freddie Gray uprising. “I was staying home, not going out, listening and seeing things on TV. But this time, because it was so close [to my house] I thought there was something I could do.”

Shortly after he was arrested while videotaping events at Mondawmin Mall, Geremy briefly saw a commissioner who informed him that if he was indigent, he qualified for a public defender. Geremy signed a paper requesting one. “Then they told us they were going to charge us with disorderly conduct,” he said, but explained that the arresting officer had only filled out half of the necessary form before leaving to go back out onto the streets.

After that, he sat in jail for two days wondering what would happen to him. He said he was hungry and after about a day, they fed him. “I took my first bite of a sweaty bologna and cheese sandwich and threw up in the toilet,” he said. “From there on I didn’t eat [any of the sandwiches].” Geremy said some people made small piles of the stale bread on top of their shoes and used them for pillows.

He had some Froot Loops, which he described as a “delicacy” because he was one of the few to score cereal and “they told us that booking was slowly running out of food.”

Geremy’s cellphone rang in the middle of our interview, and I found myself wondering how this teen who was never without his phone survived two days without it.

“We pretty much just talked,” he said. People came and went from the cell—though the seven he was arrested with more or less bonded over the duration. There was a man who worked for a security firm at Ft. Mead, a man from Harlem and a transgendered woman. “We had pretty long, in depth conversations,” he said, with people who had interesting stories to tell. “It was something to pass the time.”

And he thought about Freddie Gray. “I definitely think that something happened in that paddy wagon between when they picked him up and dropped him off. Things were not done right in situations like that,” he said, adding that he asked some of the guards there what they thought happened. “They said, ‘It is what it is.’” This puzzled Geremy. “This is all people with the same skin color as me,” he said, “because they think their job protects them. But if they hadn’t been in uniform, they could have been in the same boat as us.”

While Geremy was sitting in his cell worrying that he’d been forgotten, his foster mother, Patricia Brown, and many other parents were reaching out for legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, the public defender’s office, and a local attorney, Ginger Robinson, who agreed to work pro bono on his behalf. Robinson eventually got in to see him, and the public defenders were successful in obtaining a writ of habeas corpus. He was released without being charged, 44 hours after his arrest—just under the 48-hour extension the governor ordered.

“I was really happy when they called my name, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet,” Geremy said. “I was still worrying about the others in my cell. Since we were all arrested together, it seemed only right that they got out.” He hung out waiting for 20 minutes, and they soon followed—thanks to the same mass habeas writs filed by the public defender’s office.

The next day, Geremy returned to the Mondawmin Mall to hunt for his cellphone. He found it under a bush where the police had kicked it—four days earlier.