Baltimore Police Officer Alicia White, charged in Freddie Gray case, becomes the first to speak out

Baltimore Police Officer Alicia White becomes the first to speak out on Freddie Gray case.

Alicia White was used to smiles in her native West Baltimore, but she was also getting stares. Sometimes strangers would come right up and ask.

"Are you that officer?"

To some, she'd demur. Other times the 30-year-old would acknowledge, yes — I'm the female officer charged in Freddie Gray's death.

No one ever asked if she was guilty. Those close to her believe she couldn't possibly be culpable. But many in the city may never forgive her.

For the past 18 months, her co-defendants either went to trial or were called to the stand to testify while she awaited her own trial. Out of public view, White spent much of the time grappling with crippling anxiety, and at one point was rushed to a hospital. The stress led her and her fiance to call off their engagement, and she spent months unemployed. Then, in July, all charges were dropped.

Now, White is speaking publicly for the first time as she begins the process of clearing her name in the community and in the department, where an Internal Affairs investigation is pending. Next, she hopes to return to policing the streets of Baltimore.

On the advice of her lawyer, White declined to discuss the details of the case but maintains she did nothing wrong. She is the first of the six officers charged in Gray's death to give a sit-down interview.

"I still believe that, when I went to work that day, I did everything that I was trained to do," White said in a series of interviews with The Baltimore Sun. "Unfortunately, that day someone lost their life. But I feel like everything I was trained to do, I did."

Before being charged with manslaughter and other counts in Gray's death, White was likely to be described by family and friends as the Catholic school student from West Baltimore or the ardent churchgoer. And to many residents and co-workers, she was the community resource officer who stayed late at the children's center in her district or the young sergeant who, with just five years on the force, was already rising through the ranks.

She had never been suspended by the Police Department for anything prior to the Gray case.

Her attorney, Ivan Bates, said White's interaction with Gray lasted all of 15 to 20 seconds, and suggests she may have been swept up with the other charged officers for political reasons.

"I don't understand why on earth she was charged; I've never understood why she was charged," Bates said. "Maybe from some standpoint you have three black officers, you have three white officers. Or maybe you wanted to make sure you charged a woman. Maybe you wanted to charge a black woman."

Prosecutors declined to be interviewed but have maintained that White and the other officers failed to take necessary action that could have saved Gray's life. Prosecutors say they dropped White's case along with two others, following a judge's acquittal of three of the defendants, only because they believe the judicial system was stacked against them.

"These charges have always been about the pursuit of justice for an innocent 25-year-old man who lost his life in the custody of the police," said Rochelle Ritchie, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

White, who was placed on unpaid leave from the force after she was charged, said no one in the community ever had a cross word with her about the case. She believes that's because of the goodwill she had built up over 30 years growing up, working and worshipping in West Baltimore.

But tensions in the city have persisted. Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said the community continues to be frustrated that no officer was held criminally culpable.

"Each officer said they didn't do anything. Then who did it?" Hill-Aston said. "I'm not pointing the finger at any particular officer. All I know is Freddie is dead. He didn't kill himself, and I think he didn't get the medical attention he needed in time."

Supporters say those who still hold White responsible, however, "don't know who she is. They don't know the story," said Lt. Lisa Robinson, a mentor and the president of the Vanguard Justice Society, an organization for black police officers.

'Always led us in prayer'

White was raised in West Baltimore near Mondawmin Mall, where rioting began after Gray's death in April 2015. With the exception of her time at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, she has lived in that same home with her mother.

She was raised an only child in a Baptist household and recalls family dinners and her parents attending her school events together. At age 11, she lost her father — a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver — to lung cancer. He had asked to be at home instead of hospice when he died, according to White's aunt, Marian Haggerty. White said she watched him die.

That left White and her mother, a bank teller, on their own. She attended public elementary school before switching to parochial schools, starting with the former St. Mary of the Assumption in Govans, then Mercy High School in Northeast Baltimore.

"She was the one who always led us in prayer," former classmate Brittany Ripple recalls. "If there was a conflict, she was the one to step in and resolve it."

She also had a military-like sense of order. Ripple said White's hair was always flawless, her sneakers gleaming. She ironed creases into her blue jeans.

White attended UMES, a historically black college, with an eye toward working with computers, but after graduation she contemplated joining the military. Instead, she came across a hiring push by the Baltimore Police Department, which was looking to boost its female ranks.

She was attracted to the service aspect of law enforcement. White said she's never had bad interactions with police and looked up to the officers who attended her neighborhood's community meetings.

"I thought, 'There has to be a way to give back and serve. What better place than my own community?'" she said.

White entered the police academy in 2010. For her first assignment she patrolled the Northeastern District, where she later became a neighborhood services officer.

Long-standing complaints about the Police Department led to a scathing Department of Justice investigation that earlier this year found widespread misconduct and racial disparities in enforcement. But White insists that she hasn't witnessed those problems as a civilian or officer.

"I've had cases where I went to people's houses and they were on the verge of about to take their life, and I was able to talk to them," White said. "They were like, 'I'm glad you showed up.' It's not always about arresting somebody. It comes with the job, but it's also other aspects of policing."

Councilman Brandon Scott said White was assigned to his neighborhood and he worked with her at the community children's center. He called said folks there would "welcome her back with open arms."

"I know her character," he said. "This is someone I trust with my life and, more importantly, that we entrust with the lives of young people in the neighborhood."

After two years in the neighborhood unit, White decided she wanted to move up. Robinson, the Vanguard Justice Society president, said White would sit in her office after hours and go over materials for the promotional exam.

"I saw her as being police commissioner one day," Robinson said. "I still see her that way."

White finished ninth out of hundreds on the sergeants' list and in January 2015 was promoted to supervisor. Her new assignment would be her home district of West Baltimore.

But within four months, her gun and badge would be taken away.

Charged with manslaughter and facing up to 25 years in prison, she had suddenly become the face of bad policing in Baltimore.

Conflicting statements

The day Freddie Gray's neck was broken in the back of a police vehicle, White spoke with investigators and described what she had thought of as a routine encounter.

Gray had been chased and arrested by officers near Gilmor Homes in West Baltimore. White said she had been told of citizen complaints regarding his arrest and ventured out to North Avenue to check on the situation. Surveillance video shows her behind the open doors of the arrest van, where she said she asked Gray if there was a problem.

"I'm like 'Hey, what's going on?' Like, 'What happened?' And he wasn't saying anything. He was just kind of like not responding," White told investigators in her first interview on April 12. "So I just figured at that point, he was like — just didn't want to cooperate."

He was not secured by a seat belt, against department rules — creating a safety hazard that prosecutors say officers did not seek to rectify.

White said she didn't see a reason to seek medical attention at that time. She said the other officers told her Gray had "jailitis," a term for uncooperative arrestees hoping to go to the hospital instead of jail.

But when the van arrived at the Western District, officers said they found Gray not breathing in the back. White called for a medic.

Prosecutors began to focus on White after investigators spoke to Officer William Porter on April 17.

Porter said Gray answered in the affirmative when Porter asked if he needed to go to a hospital. Porter said he conveyed that request to White.

"I tell Sarge that Freddie Gray at this point, he's probably got to go to the medic cause he's saying — he's not really saying anything. He actually appears pretty lethargic," Porter told investigators. "I tell Sergeant White, and she goes in and she looked at him. She said, 'Yeah, you guys will probably have to take him to Bon Secours.'"

Porter said White instructed him to drop off the second prisoner in the van, Donta Allen, at the Western District before accompanying Gray to the hospital.

When police investigators confronted White about Porter's account, White said she had no recollection of such a conversation. Another officer at the scene, Mark Gladhill, did not recall the conversation either.

Gray died of his injuries on April 19, a week after his arrest. His death was ruled a homicide.

Charges announced

White, already suspended during the police investigation, was working a desk job at headquarters when State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced the charges against the officers on the steps of the War Memorial building downtown on May 1.

White said it had never occurred to her that she would be implicated; she hadn't even consulted a lawyer. She and another officer stood by a television listening as Mosby laid out her office's findings.

By the time White first encountered Gray, Mosby said, he was already injured and dying. She said White was responsible for investigating complaints about Gray's arrest but only "spoke to the back of Mr. Gray's head."

"She did nothing further despite the fact that she was advised that he needed a medic," Mosby said, referring to Porter's statement. "She made no effort to look up or assess or determine his condition."

White called Robinson for guidance. She gave her Bates' phone number. Bates answered his cellphone and heard a woman's inconsolable voice.

"I need help," she told him. "I didn't do anything. Please help me."

Bates has maintained, along with the attorneys for the other officers charged in the case, that Gray was not hurt until just before he was found unresponsive in the van at the police station.

But if Gray was indeed hurt when White saw him, Bates outlined for The Sun the arguments he never made in court for why she was not criminally culpable for his death.

She did not see anything medically wrong and was not trained to recognize the type of severe internal injuries an autopsy showed Gray had suffered. And her interaction lasted just seconds, Bates said. Moreover, he said, other officers were in control of the arrest, and her supervisor, Lt. Brian Rice, was present.

When medics arrived at the Western district to treat Gray, they also did not believe he had a broken neck, but thought he may have overdosed and administered Narcan. Also, Bates points to records showing that medics had gone to the wrong location first, creating a delay that could have saved Gray's life.

"If the medic that's trained can't recognize it, how could Sgt. Alicia White recognize at [North Avenue] that he was suffering those injuries?" Bates said. "If she thought something was wrong, she would've taken those extra steps."

Porter's statement actually would have backfired on prosecutors, Bates believes. If true, it showed that White gave an order for Gray to be taken for medical treatment that fell to Porter to carry out. Porter also was charged.

But at Porter's trial, State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe told jurors that White "doesn't do anything" after allegedly being informed Gray wanted a medic. Porter's attorneys told jurors that other officers involved in Gray's arrest bore the responsibility to do more, including White.

Porter was cleared after his trial ended in a hung jury.

Asked in an interview with her lawyer if she would have done anything differently, White answers: "No."

She didn't elaborate.

An anxious time

White's trial was scheduled to be the last of the six cases to go to trial. As the weeks passed, White, who was free on $350,000 bail, became stricken by anxiety, to the point that she once felt she couldn't move and ended up in the hospital, according to White and her aunt.

"There was a lot of times you could see her and be talking to her, and she would break down," Haggerty said. "I always told her to keep her head up."

Already a workout nut, she found solace in her gym. But when she asked about potential employment there, the managers seemed reluctant, leaving her to feel she had too much baggage to be hired anywhere. She spent the time under indictment unemployed.

The end of her engagement is a subject that still brings her to tears. "We still communicate," she said. "I guess the toll of everything just kind of put things on hold."

Former classmates from Mercy High School texted and messaged each other on Facebook in disbelief after the charges were announced. One classmate helped relay their messages of support to White. Eventually they decided to hold a get-together.

White was nervous no one would show, and arrived late. But when she walked into Michael's Cafe in Timonium, 35 Mercy alums were waiting for her. "She was definitely overwhelmed by the presence of everyone there," Ripple said.

Ripple said no one ever asked her what happened or if the charges were true. "When she was ready to tell us, that's when she did," she said.

When she finally heard White's side of the story, Ripple said she was "disgusted."

"What happened to [Gray] shouldn't have happened, but we don't know exactly what happened, and we won't know fully. Everybody jumped to conclusions, and just wanted to name names and that was it. It didn't matter if it was right or wrong."

White did not attend the verdicts for her fellow officers who went to trial. After the cases were dropped, three of them attended a conservative banquet in Washington, D.C., where they were honored for their service. White didn't attend.

"It wasn't anything that I was interested in," White said. "This man lost his life, and that's not anything that I need to be at a gala for."

She is one of five officers charged in the case who are suing Mosby for defamation and invasion of privacy.

White, meanwhile, is eager to return to policing. She has received $96,800 in back pay since being cleared of criminal charges and is assigned to the Police Department's training academy, though in an administrative role. She earns an annual salary of $74,000. An internal investigation, including what, if any, discipline she will face, has not yet concluded.

With the nation embroiled in a discussion about police brutality and law enforcement in America — driven, in part, by Gray's death — White feels that she can still do right by the community.

"That's not every police. That's not me," she said. "This is home for me. So to be able to continue to help serve the community in which I grew up in, that's important to me."

jfenton@baltsun.com

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