As I sat through the three trials of Baltimore police officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, it became apparent that the Baltimore police department needs serious independent oversight. Baltimore police cannot police their own police. Just like Freddie Gray, Dondi Johnson was another individual who sustained a fatal spine injury in a Baltimore police van. Johnson and others like Gray’s family received civil settlements. Since 2011, Baltimore City has paid over $13 million in police brutality cases, including alleged rough rides. These incidences, while difficult to prove a “rough ride” theory in a criminal court, should be the subject of Department of Justice oversight. The Department of Justice launched its investigation into the practices and patterns of the Baltimore police department in May, 2015.
In the Freddie Gray trials, the state could not prove a rough ride existed, one where the van driver intentionally goes on a maniac driving pattern to rough up the prisoner in the van. The state’s neurology expert, Dr. Morris Soriano, testified that without extreme force, Freddie Gray’s injuries would not have occurred. And Soriano further opined that Gray could not have caused his own injuries. And I’ve heard of Baltimore residents talk about prisoners being given rough rides, while handcuffed and shackled in the van without a seat belt. I seriously doubt if those who sustained injuries or ended up becoming paralyzed are fabricating stories, having freak accidents or causing their own paralyzing injuries.
Judge Barry Williams stated that Caesar Goodson, the van driver in Gray’s case, had no reason to give Freddie Gray a rough ride. Williams cited that Gray had done nothing to Goodson, like spitting on him, for Goodson to have a motive for a rough ride. Judge Williams needs to come out of his ivory tower a little more often. There is no motive necessary for police to treat African Americans and other minorities with disdain. One need only look at the cases of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, LaQuan McDonald, Samuel DuBose and many others whose lives were taken by police without any motive. And the Baltimore police are known among many in the African American community of treating African Americans with less than humanity and dignity for decades. If motive is a criteria that a Baltimore judge needs to determine police misconduct, there will be no police misconduct found in brutality cases.
The more troubling aspect is the Baltimore police policy on seat belts. While seat belts are required by law in Maryland and most states, they are not required by law in police vans. Baltimore police officers have general orders to use seat belts but apparently, according to court testimony, have discretion to refrain from using them. And most Baltimore officers do not use seat belts citing safety reasons. Even when Gray was found to be lethargic, Goodson and officer Porter still refrained from securing him with a seat belt. There is no use for mandatory police general orders if Baltimore police can use their discretion to ignore them. Even a defense police expert from Charlottesville, VA testified in the Porter trial that chief of police general orders are intended to be followed.
The most troubling issue in the Gray trials is the police discretion to call a medic, if requested by the prisoner. Testimony revealed that police are not to use their own judgment when a prisoner requests a medic. Officer Porter testified that Gray stated the words “help”. Porter asked Gray if he needed a medic to which Gray replied “yes”. According to the testimony, Gray appeared lethargic. Yet, Judge Williams found there was no need to call a medic or for Goodson to drive to a hospital less than 3 miles away, as Gray did not exhibit any physical injuries such as blood. This essentially leaves the discretion within the police officer’s control as to whether or not to call a medic or transport a prisoner to a hospital. Many injuries such as strokes, mental issues necessitating hospital care, asthma, breathing issues, neck injuries and internal injuries like Gray sustained will often show no outwardly visible signs. Leaving it to the police officer’s discretion may, in cases like Gray, result in serious life threatening injuries or death. Police cannot be the sole arbiter of injury. No harm would result from a police medic being called in these cases. And a life could possibly be saved.
These issues are only several that were raised in the Gray trials which necessitate that the Department of Justice place oversight authority over the Baltimore police. The Justice Department has extended oversight reform following investigations of other police departments, including Ferguson, following Michael Brown’s death, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Detroit and over 20 other cities. And oversight authorities often extends for years. The Justice Department has legal authority to investigate police agencies for systemic problems and force them to implement reforms.
Following the verdict in the Goodson case, the Baltimore police union tweeted a tweet showing their delight in the acquittal while mocking State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby—as a lone wolf. It has since been deleted. There is no need for frolic and partying by Baltimore police where a young man’s life was taken while in police custody. There is a need for Justice Department oversight of the Baltimore police department to change culture, make necessary reforms and prevent the loss of other lives.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor.