Prosecutors will not charge the Baltimore police officers involved in arresting and fatally injuring a man — after finding that they did not use excessive force and followed police procedure when a detective tackled Anthony Anderson in a vacant lot last September.
Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein made the announcement Thursday, in a case that has roiled Anderson's East Baltimore community and sparked accusations of police brutality against black men.
"I said to the family this morning, there's no question Mr. Anderson's death is a tragedy," Bernstein said. "But not every tragedy leads to criminal prosecution."
Anderson's relatives disputed that view. Outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, in which Bernstein made his announcement, Anderson's eldest son held a sign calling for an indictment and said he believes the prosecutor's elaborate explanation of the arrest covered up what really happened.
"It's a homicide," said Marcus Pettiford, 27. He said he was shocked by the lack of charges related to his father's death.
There was no need to slam Anderson to the ground when he had no weapon and posed no threat, his family maintained. They decried what they saw as a double standard. Bernstein acknowledged that there are different standards when dealing with law officers because force is often part of their job.
"In point of fact, when you're dealing with investigations involving excessive force with police officers," he said, "it's a completely different paradigm."
Activists and a lawyer for Anderson's family said they hope federal authorities will revisit Bernstein's decision. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has started its own investigation, Bernstein said. Protesters plan to hold a rally on Saturday at the scene of Anderson's arrest
The officers involved, who remain suspended with pay, now face a Baltimore police internal affairs investigation.
Three detectives were involved in the fatal arrest: Gregory Boyd, a 16-year veteran; Michael Vodarick, a Baltimore police officer for seven years; and Todd A. Strohman. Strohman, a three-year veteran who nearly died in a shooting in 2010, was the officer who took down Anderson, causing eight broken ribs, lung bruises and the spleen lacerations that killed him, according to an autopsy.
In a lengthy account, Bernstein laid out what he determined to have happened the night of Sept. 21.
All three officers were working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift as part of the now-disbanded Violent Crime Impact Section, which focused on drug deals and violent crime. Patrolling the eastern streets in an unmarked car and plainclothes wearing clearly labeled police vests, Bernstein said, they saw Anderson making a drug deal just after he left a bar.
The police car turned toward the transaction and bystanders yelled out "5-O" and "knockers" — slang for undercover officers. The shouts caused Anderson to walk away across Biddle Street, toward a vacant lot. The officers followed and Strohman got out of the car, identifying himself as law enforcement, Bernstein said. Anderson kept walking.
The detective said he saw Anderson slip a plastic baggie into his mouth. Strohman pounced, putting Anderson in a "bear hug," Bernstein said. He fell on top of Anderson with his arm pinned underneath. A loose pill and the bag came tumbling out of Anderson's mouth, prosecutors said. The contents were later found to have been four heroin gel capsules, one of which they said was half chewed.
Bernstein maintained that was all the physical force police used. But family members who live nearby and saw the arrest said they also saw Anderson kicked. Bernstein's report said there was no evidence of that.
"He picked him up and slammed him," said Anderson's son Anthony Jr., 25. "He put his knee all up in his back."
As a handcuffed Anderson sat on the ground, his mother, sister, son and daughter walked to the vacant lot. They watched him struggle to breathe and slump over. The detectives thought he was overdosing, so they told Anderson's relatives to run to a firehouse for help.
Anderson was unconscious by the time paramedics arrived. They revived him and gave him the drug Narcan, which counteracts overdoses. Bernstein said Anderson's condition improved and he was alert as an ambulance arrived to take him to Johns Hopkins Hospital. He died minutes later.
Police initially publicly announced that he had died from choking or a drug overdose. But Anderson's family believed Strohman's actions killed him, and those suspicions were confirmed in October when an autopsy listed blunt force trauma as the cause. The Medical Examiner called it a homicide.
Bernstein said further investigation has shown that Anderson's spleen ruptured when he fell, causing internal bleeding. Anderson was especially susceptible to such an outcome because of a liver ailment that affected his spleen. The diseased liver also limited his ability to clot blood, so he bled more than normal.
The autopsy revealed only one external bruise, which Bernstein said came from the fall. There were no other marks suggesting kicks or rough treatment, he said.
Matthew Fraling, an attorney for Boyd, said that the officer was saddened by Anderson's death but that "it was our contention from the beginning that no crime was committed. The evidence supported the narrative that the officers provided; the investigation bore that out."
Fraling, a former prosecutor, said the case was "essentially an accidental death."
Strohman invoked his legal right not to be interviewed by prosecutors. But Robert F. Cherry, president of the city police union, said Strohman "had nothing to hide."
"He feels bad that this happened," Cherry said. "Their intention wasn't to kill this guy. If anything, the autopsy report to me supports their account."
Prosecutors also believed Strohman's bear hug was an appropriate tactic with appropriate force, consistent with Baltimore police training and protocols, to make sure Anderson didn't swallow drugs.
"The use of a bear-hug takedown is a very standard tactic, especially used by undercover officers chasing a suspect," said retired Los Angeles police Capt. Greg Meyer, who helped run the Los Angeles Police Academy during his tenure and remains a national use-of-force consultant. "It's not typically injurious, but it can be. It's not an unusual tactic."
J. Wyndal Gordon, attorney for Anderson's family, said multiple witnesses, including contacts he provided the state's attorney, saw Anderson brutally kicked. But the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which has taken up the case, said he cannot find anyone living near the crime scene whom prosecutors interviewed.
Bernstein countered that his office spoke with several neighborhood witnesses, Anderson's relatives, medical experts, detectives Vodarick and Boyd and several others.
Gordon said Bernstein hasn't told him just how many people he spoke to or their names.
"It's clear he totally discounted the evidence presented to him not only by our office but evidence he went out and gathered himself," Gordon said.
The lawyer said Bernstein should have assigned a special prosecutor with no ties to his office because he and Strohman share a conflict of interest. After being shot in 2010, Strohman lobbied for a tighter gun bill in Annapolis while Bernstein was doing the same thing.
Gordon also questioned the prosecution's claim that Anderson was dealing drugs or had been using drugs at the time of the arrest.
Bernstein stood by his investigation.
"I am committed to prosecuting any officer who violates the law and dishonors the badge," he said.
Separately, the State's Attorney's Office said Thursday that it has declined to pursue charges against four officers implicated in a broad kickback scandal involving a Rosedale towing company and auto body shop. The decision comes nearly two years after the scandal broke with 17 officers charged in federal court, and 18 others suspended but not charged.
Officers Ricardo Torres, Ezra Hendren, James Craig, and James Gipson won't be charged but remain suspended, according to a spokesman for the office.
Bernstein said he is working faster to clear cases involving police, a complaint by the families of people officers have hurt or killed. He said the average time it took his office to investigate those cases was down to 129 days in 2012 compared with 216 the previous year.
It took his office 124 days to clear Anderson's case, he said.
On Thursday morning, when Bernstein advised Anderson's family he wasn't pursuing a case, they asked him how he would feel if the tables were turned.
He said he responded, "It'd be disrespectful for me to imagine what they're going through."
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Los Angeles police Capt. Greg Meyer.
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.