Goodson defense calls police policy and training into question

Attorneys for Baltimore Police Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. began his defense in his administrative trial Thursday by calling police witnesses to advance the argument that the department failed to train him properly in the safe transport of detainees.

Goodson, 47, was the driver of the police van in which Freddie Gray was found unconscious with severe spinal cord injuries in April 2015. Gray, 25, died a week after his arrest in West Baltimore.

Goodson, who was acquitted of murder and other charges during a criminal trial, faces more than 20 administrative charges, including making false statements to investigators and neglecting his duty by failing to secure Gray in a seat belt in the van.

If the charges are sustained by a trial board of three police officers, Goodson could lose his job.

During Goodson’s criminal trial last year, his defense also assailed the Police Department for failing to properly train officers or ensure they were aware of the department policies governing their actions.

On Thursday, Goodson's attorneys hammered home points they made in their opening remarks Monday and again during the cross-examination of witnesses called by the prosecution.

Defense attorneys Sean Malone and Thomas Tompsett Jr. called a police training academy officer who testified that the department had no training specifically for wagon drivers at the time of Gray's arrest.

They called another officer, who worked for then-Commissioner Anthony Batts. Lt. Derek Loeffler testified that commanders were aware of the dangers the vans posed to detainees, and were in discussions about how to make improvements.

Loeffler said he met with Batts on the matter and wrote a memo about it to Batts and several other commanders in March 2014, more than a year before Gray’s arrest.

Still, he said, it wasn’t until after Gray’s death that the department actually made changes to improve safety.

The defense attorneys also called a lieutenant responsible for disseminating policies to officers. Lt. Robert Quick testified that the methods the department used at the time of Gray's arrest to ensure officers received policy updates were insufficient.

Just days before Gray’s arrest, the department changed its policy to require officers to secure detainees in seat belts. The defense says Goodson was unaware of the policy change on the day of Gray's arrest.

After Gray’s death, Quick said, commanders realized that they had to make improvements immediately. As a “stopgap,” he said, they immediately revised and reissued 26 key policies to officers.

The department also purchased and implemented the use of PowerDMS, a software platform that allows for the department to more easily disseminate new policies and policy changes, and for officers to acknowledge their receipt.

Quick said the department has improved “vastly” since Gray’s death, in part because Police Commissioner Kevin Davis takes the administrative side of running the department more seriously than past commanders.

“It’s now a focus,” he said. “For years, it never was.”

The U.S. Department of Justice outlined failings throughout the department in a scathing report last year. The Justice Department and the city signed a consent decree mandating reforms.

Quick said the decree is having a positive impact on the professionalism of the department, forcing it to more consistently and repeatedly review policies to make sure that they are consistent with national best practices.

The Justice Department report was admitted into Goodson’s trial as evidence.

The defense also called two witnesses to bolster Goodson's claim about where he took the van after Gray was found unconscious and taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Goodson said he drove it to the hospital in order to deliver Gray's personal belongings to the officer on hospital duty. Investigators have charged Goodson with making a false statement about his actions.

The defense also called Det. Michael Boyd, a member of the police team that originally investigated Gray’s death, and through him introduced a video interrogation he conducted of Donta Allen.

Allen was in the back of the van along with Gray — though on the opposite side of a center partition — during the final leg of Gray’s ride to the Western District police station.

Allen told Boyd that he believed Gray was banging his head against the partition during the ride, suggesting he had injured himself. Allen later changed his story in interviews with The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets, and gave conflicting testimony in criminal trials in the case.

Neil Duke, prosecuting the case for the city, challenged Allen’s trustworthiness.

Duke also sought to downplay the relevance of the testimony that the Police Department had failed in significant ways to train its officers and inform them of policies.

In his cross-examination of Loeffler, he played up the idea that it was common knowledge that placing individuals in the back of the police vans without securing them in seat belts was dangerous.

Duke also challenged the idea that securing detainees in seat belts represented a danger to officers when the detainees are not being combative. Officer William Porter testified Gray was “lethargic” and calm at one of the stops.

The proceedings were scheduled to continue Friday and Monday.

The trial board panel can clear Goodson of the charges against him, or sustain any or all of the charges.

If the panel clears him, the decision is final.

If the panel finds Goodson guilty, it will recommend punishment to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who can accept the recommendation or choose his own punishment, up to termination.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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