Baltimore police officers cleared in Freddie Gray case return to uncertain future

Returning to work will not be so simple for @BaltimorePolice officers cleared in #FreddieGray case

After a Baltimore jury convicted him for shooting a man during a 1996 traffic stop, Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto said he became a pariah in the community and with top police brass.

The Baltimore Police Department fired him, and he became a car salesman in Harford County, where he moved from his Northeast Baltimore home after vandals tagged his van with "killer cop." When Maryland's highest court reversed his conviction in 2000, he wanted to get back to policing but said command staff made it clear he'd never get ahead. He returned to work one day and retired the next.

Two decades later, Pagotto has been following the case of the six officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. Now that all charges have been dropped, those officers are on administrative duties and may return to patrol after internal reviews determine whether they broke department policies.

"I wouldn't trust anyone if I were them," Pagotto said.

After being exonerated in other high-profile police prosecutions, some officers have returned to duty with an unbowed sense of duty. In Baltimore, police union leaders and others believe the officers in the Gray case should be welcomed back to the force, given the lack of evidence of wrongdoing. Like anyone else, they are considered innocent unless proven otherwise.

Highlighting support across the ranks for the six and expressing a growing concern that police will be wrongfully prosecuted going forward, union members unanimously agreed to pay more in dues to cover the cost of defending officers in court.

But some officers cleared of crimes in the past have confronted more obstacles: continuing protests, threats, stress-related health problems, political pressure to resign. In Baltimore, the case has drawn intense interest, and Gray's death continues to elicit strong emotions on city streets, where rioting broke out last year on the day of his funeral.

All officers are changed by such an experience, said Dean Angelo Sr., president of a local police union in Chicago, a city still reeling from video showing police shooting an unarmed teenager 16 times two years ago.

"Can they get back to normal? I guess. But it will never be the same for them," Angelo said of the six Baltimore officers. "It will always be hanging over them. People will always be whispering behind them when they come in and out of a room. They're going to have to deal with it the rest of their lives."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who serves as vice chair of the public safety committee, said the transition to old jobs would be easy for some officers, difficult for others.

"It's going to vary from person to person and where they are assigned," Scott said.

The Baltimore officers return to a changed environment. Since Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby indicted them 15 months ago, tensions between police and residents here and nationally have rarely been worse.

While protests in Baltimore have remained peaceful since last year's unrest and police are working to improve community relations, more black men have died after encounters with police across the country, including some caught on camera. Several officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., were killed in retaliatory shootings.

The Baltimore Police Department has also changed. A number of reforms have been implemented — some in response to the Gray case — and more are expected soon, when the U.S. Department of Justice releases its findings from a wide-ranging civil rights investigation.

And police union officials have engaged in a war of words with Mosby, a key partner in the crime fight. In fact, some of the officers in the Gray case have civil litigation pending against Mosby, alleging malicious prosecution. Mosby has been widely criticized for pursuing charges that were considered baseless.

"Policing has changed dramatically," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York City police officer. Officers today must "run into harm's way with all those cameras pointed at them, worried about their physical safety, worried about being criminally charged or civilly sued."

O'Donnell said it used to be that officers were encouraged to get back to policing the streets after being cleared of wrongdoing. "Years ago you would see cops in this position demanding to get back out there," he said. "The peer pressure used to be hard-driving."

"The peer pressure now is, 'Why are you getting involved?'" he said. "We'll see if these cops launch a major push to be back out there to be screamed at and vilified, or if they say, 'Give me an assignment that doesn't put me back out.'"

"Avoidance has become part of the culture," he said.

Gene Ryan, president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said that the officers "can go back to work and they will." Union officials and defense lawyers have said that the officers didn't mean Gray harm and that his death was a tragic accident.

Four of the officers were suspended without pay last year; they now join the other two on paid administrative duties.

Kenny Schubert, secretary of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, said the officers might want to stay on the force to keep their retirement benefits. Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the transport van in which Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury, is the closest to retirement at age 47. But if the officers wanted to leave, Schubert is certain other departments would be happy to hire them.

"Maybe they can pick up and go to another police agency, and it wouldn't be too hard to start over," Schubert said. "But why should they? They didn't do anything wrong."

Some of the officers had deep ties in the community they served. Officer William Porter grew up in West Baltimore near Gilmor Homes, where Gray was arrested. And Sgt. Alicia White "was the darling of the community", said Barbara Jackson, president of the Frankford Improvement Association.

"She always took her time working the community, the elderly and the kids, especially the kids," Jackson said. "We want her back."

White's attorney, Ivan Bates, said the police sergeant was considered to be on the fast track for promotion before Gray's death.

"Many people viewed her as a future leader in the Police Department," he said of White. "She wants to get back to her community. I'm sure every officer wants to get back."

Edward C. Jackson, a 22-year veteran of the Police Department who retired as a colonel and teaches at Baltimore City Community College, said he expects all of the officers would be eager to return to their jobs.

"There's a sense of pride, duty and honor in being a police officer," Jackson said. "Most folks are more afraid of being disgraced than being killed in the line of duty. Most of them are going to want to come back if only to vindicate themselves."

The department has a legal and moral obligation to "make these officers as whole as possible" by giving them meaningful police work if they can't return them to the street. He said the department must consider their personal safety, too.

Jackson said the officers also would have to navigate a strained relationship with the state's attorney's office. Five of the officers have sued Mosby, alleging false arrest, false imprisonment and defamation.

"There's no way in hell they're going to be comfortable submitting a statement of probable cause to the same state's attorney office that tried to prosecute them," he said. "You would think bygones would be bygones, but if Mosby's still the state's attorney, and I'm any one of these officers, I would have to be very apprehensive."

Gray, 25, died a week after he emerged from the police van. Prosecutors accused the officers of causing his death by failing to secure him in a seat belt and get him timely medical care; they also accused Goodson of giving Gray a "rough ride."

All of the officers pleaded not guilty. Goodson, Officer Edward Nero and Lt. Brian Rice were acquitted before Mosby dropped the charges against White, Officer Garrett Miller and Officer William Porter on Wednesday.

The officers have not spoken publicly since the case concluded.

The city has reached a $6.4 million civil settlement with Gray's family.

O'Donnell said such high-profile incidents invariably become a "career staller or career ender."

"Police departments apply a different standard to determine if someone is fit to be a police officer," he said. "What is in the best interest of the department has to be the paramount issue."

Just because the officers are cleared of criminal wrongdoing doesn't mean they should get their jobs back, he said.

"It's a really bad outcome to have someone in police custody who ends up dead. Not being criminally convicted does not mean they displayed exemplary conduct by any means," he said. "The department has to think long and hard if they will be returned to a law enforcement role."

Sean Malone, whose law firm represented Goodson and who previously worked on the Police Department's command staff, said officers who are cleared can overcome the stigma of allegations of wrongdoing. As chief legal counsel, he oversaw the disciplinary process.

"Officers who were acquitted in court and cleared in the administrative hearing process continued with their normal career progression," Malone said.

An officer involved in a 1999 shooting, Robert J. Quick, is now a lieutenant in the Police Department.

According to police, Quick and Officer Barry W. Hamilton chased Larry J. Hubbard after he leapt from an Oldsmobile that had been reported stolen. Quick caught Hubbard, and the two struggled on the ground. Police said Hubbard tried to grab Quick's gun, and Hamilton fatally shot Hubbard in the back of the head.

Some witnesses said Hubbard did not resist arrest and pleaded for his life after being beaten by the officers.

A grand jury determined that the officers acted according to the "law and their training" and declined to indict the officers after eight days of testimony from about two dozen witnesses.

Dwight Pettit, an attorney who has sued the Police Department and officers in other cases of alleged brutality, won a $500,000 settlement from the Baltimore Police Department for Hubbard's family in 2002.

"I was shocked when I learned he had been promoted," Pettit said of Quick.

Quick did not return a request for comment.

Other Baltimore police officers, however, returned only to be forced out.

Officer Charles M. Smothers struggled when he returned to the job after he fatally shot a knife-wielding man outside Lexington Market in 1997. The incident was captured on videotape by a bystander and sparked community outrage.

The state's attorney at the time, Patricia Jessamy, did not prosecute because she could "find no evidence of a crime."

As a result of the shooting, however, a previous domestic-violence incident involving Smothers became more widely known, and then-Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier fired him.

Smothers, who now works for the Fire Department, said that he did not know what to expect for the six officers involved in the Gray case. But, he said, the department's public statements indicate that officials will stand behind the officers.

"I think they have a better, more supportive commissioner," he said.

Pagotto, the former Baltimore police officer who shot a man during a traffic stop, is not convinced.

"Put a black mark on the department and they want to get you," he said.

Pagotto never went to jail while he appealed his involuntary manslaughter conviction. Eventually, the Court of Appeals reversed the jury's finding that he acted with gross negligence and found that his actions didn't constitute criminal conduct.

But, he said, the department didn't want him back. "They said, 'Cut your losses, get your pension and go,'" he said.

He hopes the department provides the officers in the Gray case with adequate counseling "to help them keep their heads together."

"I got PTSD from it all," said Pagotto, 59. "It's just like getting hit in the head with a hammer. It's trauma to the brain. That's what my police psychologist said."

Former Chicago police detective Dante Servin said he, too, has been haunted by a fatal encounter.

In 2012, the 22-year veteran was off duty and driving his car along the alley behind his house in Chicago's West Side neighborhood. Servin had called the police earlier on a large group of people who had been partying in a nearby park, and now he was confronted with a group standing in his alley.

He and the group got in a shouting match. He said he saw one of the men in the group pull out a gun and advance toward his car, though no gun was recovered at the scene. Servin fired several shots, killing a 22-year-old woman.

Servin was indicted but found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in April 2015, and the city settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with the woman's family for $4.5 million. Last year the city's Independent Police Review Authority and the former commissioner recommended Servin be fired. In May, two days before a hearing board was expected to terminate him, Servin resigned to save his pension.

At the time, criticism of the Chicago Police Department was mounting after the fatal shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old, Laquan McDonald, which was captured in a police dash-cam video. Servin said he still "feels threatened" by the demonstrators who continue to picket his house.

"It became extremely political," said Servin, 49. "They had to make an example out of me to appease the protesters. Now I'm unemployed. I have no income. I was traumatized. I'm up and down. High and lows. On medication. I'm trying to get over this. I have flashbacks to the shooting."

"They have to watch out," he said of the six Baltimore officers. "At least they have each other for support."

ddonovan@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
77°