Annapolis police officer exonerated of misconduct in altered photo investigation

Phil Davis
Contact Reporterpdavis@capgaznews.com

An Annapolis officer charged with violating police policy was fully exonerated Friday. A three-officer panel ruled his alteration of a photo to show a white employee’s face on a black officer’s body was “a prank gone horribly wrong.”

Cpl. David Stokes will not face discipline for placing Communications Officer Robert “Jay” Thomas’ face on Sgt. Kevin Freeman’s photo, despite Freeman saying it made him feel like an “Uncle Tom.”

Capt. Richard Ricko, a Maryland Transportation Authority officer who was one of three outside police officers presiding over the hearing, said the three “recognize that it was a prank gone horribly wrong.” He said there was “no evidence (of) racial undertones” in Stokes’ intent.

The panel had two black officers and one white officer, Ricko.

Stokes faced three charges of violating internal policies at the department, but none involved allegations of racism.

The city’s hired attorney, Kathy Hoke, argued it should not matter that Stokes’ stated intent was not to harm Freeman based on his race.

She said the charge of intimidating or humiliating another officer with an image or posting “does not even require actual harm.”

“Rather this is a protective measure,” Hoke said. “While it may not have been offensive to any of us … we know that it was offensive to several people.” Officer Shomar Johnson, who originally saw the photo and sent it to Freeman, also told investigators he found the image offensive.

“The lack of racial animus does not diminish” Stokes’ guilt, she said, adding that none of the impact on Freeman nor the following publicity would’ve occurred “but for his manipulation.”

But Stokes and dispatchers, including a black woman, who were also in the room altering photos of Thomas, testified it had nothing to do with race.

The board ultimately ruled that because Freeman was offended on racial grounds unintended by Stokes, his feelings on the matter should not be tied to internal charges of misconduct.

At one point, Stokes’ attorney, Stacey Rice, told the board the incident “had everything to do with race.”

“And if it’s not relevant, then why did we hear so much about it?” she said.

Freeman testified Thursday he originally did not know the image was of Thomas’ face. He said he thought it was “a random white guy,” taking it as a sort of insult as though it were “reverse blackface.”

Blackface is a racist performance most commonly done by whites in the pre-civil rights era where people would paint their faces black, their lips either white or bright red and mock black people to entertain other white people.

Before the verdict, Stokes said he’s fearful the department is out to get him. He said he now avoids the department’s communication room, where the image was found, whenever possible.

The trial was also a rare look into departmental relationships and the issues with police officers investigating their own, especially when they work in the same office.

Rice had focused heavily on the investigation of Sgt. Mark Ferguson, an internal affairs investigator in charge of creating a report about the incident.

She said Ferguson improperly characterized the investigation by introducing the race of Thomas and Freeman during interviews with witnesses and suspects, but not of other photos found in the office. Another black officer, Jamal Davis, was featured in one of the photos, but Freeman’s face was not superimposed over his body.

In addition, multiple people testified that other officers, including Ferguson and Chief Scott Baker, expressed opinions of the case to Stokes and Freeman prior to the conclusion of the investigation.

Freeman said Baker’s comments made him feel worse about the incident when he told him he viewed it as “just an inappropriate joke” while Ferguson admitted he told Stokes he’d be “disappointed” in him “if it is what I think it is.”

Rice also said the publicity the incident received from local activist Carl Snowden and The Capital was the real root of Freeman’s stress and humiliation.

She accused both of mischaracterizing the event, at one point saying “the press of this incident is being publicized in a wrongful way, in a way that is not truthful.” Editor Rick Hutzell said The Capital stands by its reporting.

Rice did not respond to calls for comment as to how she thought The Capital was not “truthful” in its reporting.

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