Former Baltimore police commander: Porter acted reasonably in handling Freddie Gray

Westside cops, former Baltimore commander say Porter acted reasonably in handling Freddie Gray

To Timothy Longo, Officer William G. Porter's actions on the day Freddie Gray was arrested were perfectly reasonable.

Porter had helped Gray off the floor of a police van, the former Baltimore police commander testified Thursday. The officer notified those who were primarily responsible for Gray's care that he needed to go to a hospital, Longo said, and used his discretion when he opted not to secure Gray with a seat belt.

Longo spent more than 18 years with the Baltimore Police Department, has a law degree and is now police chief in Charlottesville, Va. His testimony drew the ire of Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow, who said he could not understand how a police chief and training expert could make excuses for failing to follow policies that could have saved Gray's life.

"Isn't the purpose of the general orders and policies and procedures ... to guide and mandate the discretion of an officer?" Schatzow asked.

Longo's take on Porter's actions highlight the divide between police, many of whom strongly oppose the decision of State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby to file criminal charges against the six officers involved in Gray's arrest, and members of the public who believe that police routinely evade punishment when people die in interactions with officers.

Gray died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. Porter, the first of the six officers to stand trial, is fighting charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

Training instructors have testified for the prosecution about department rules. The defense has called officers who worked with Porter — and were present when Gray was arrested — to testify about how those rules are actually carried out by members of the police force.

Longo said repeatedly that officers rely on their judgment to make quick decisions on the street. If they break a rule, he said, they must be ready to explain why, and could face internal discipline.

During seven days of testimony, Porter's attorneys have sought to cast doubt about how and when Gray was injured. Porter took the stand Wednesday as his team opened their defense.

He said Gray told him he needed urgent medical care, but did not say why. Porter said he was nevertheless set to accompany Gray to Bon Secours Hospital to be examined. Before he could, Gray was found unconscious in the back of the van.

To prove that Porter committed involuntary manslaughter, his attorneys say, prosecutors must show that his conduct deviated significantly from what an officer would reasonably have done.

Prosecutors contend that Porter was criminally negligent when he did not secure Gray in a seat belt or call quickly for an ambulance when Gray asked for one.

The defense has called several officers to the stand to back up Porter's actions, among them three who were involved at different points during Gray's arrest. Prosecutors granted immunity to at least two of them but did not call them as witnesses.

As defense witnesses, they echoed Porter's testimony that those arrested are rarely if ever secured in police vans with seat belts, and that officers are inundated with departmental directives and have foggy recollections of their training.

Officer Mark Gladhill testified Thursday that he saw Gray inside the police transport van kneeling and supporting his weight after the point at which the state has alleged that Gray had suffered a severe injury and needed urgent care.

Gladhill said he had participated in 50 to 100 arrests during his time on the force and only used seat belts on prisoners when they were placed in his police cruiser.

Officer Matthew Wood, who was present at two of the van stops, said he had participated in 100 arrests and could not recall a detainee ever being put in a seat belt in a van.

Officer Zachary Novak, who helped load Gray into the van, testified Wednesday that he believed that only 10 percent of arrestees loaded into vans are secured with seat belts.

Some witnesses have testified that Gray was thrashing around inside the van. Gladhill said he did not recall the van shaking once Gray was put inside.

A. Dwight Pettit, a veteran defense attorney not involved in the case, said it made sense that the defense would call the officers.

He speculated that prosecutors opted not to call them because it would limit their ability to challenge any testimony that was "not particularly in their theory" of the case.

"The state is sort of bound by the testimony of its own witnesses," Pettit said. "If they start challenging their own witnesses, then the defense is going to object and say, 'Hey, that's your own witness!'"

Earlier Thursday, Dr. Matthew Ammerman, a neurosurgeon, testified that Gray's injury was "catastrophic" and would have immediately caused him to lose the ability to breathe.

That contradicted the findings of the state medical examiner who performed Gray's autopsy and a medical expert called by prosecutors.

Ammerman said the injury would have "immediately rendered him paralyzed, stopped him from breathing and unfortunately ended his life."

The timing and impact of Gray's injury has been a point of contention. Gray is said to have asked to be taken to a hospital during the van's first four stops.

Porter's attorneys contend that Gray was not injured then but simply lethargic after running from police and resisting going to jail. They say he suffered his injury later, meaning that Porter did not ignore legitimate requests for help.

Prosecutors have countered that a later injury would mean that Porter had even more opportunities to help Gray by fastening his seat belt or calling for medical attention when he first asked.

Dr. Morris Marc Soriano, a neurosurgeon called by prosecutors, testified that Gray had suffered a severe injury but would have been able to continue breathing for a time by using "accessory" muscles, and that he was trying to communicate his injury to Porter.

Ammerman said he believed those secondary muscles would not have provided enough support to keep Gray breathing and that Gray could not have survived his injuries.

Another defense expert, Dr. Vincent DiMaio, testified Wednesday that Gray's injuries would have been instantly debilitating.

The most contentious testimony Thursday came from Longo, who has announced his retirement from the Charlottesville Police Department after 15 years as chief.

Longo was prominent during the investigation of the death of University of Virginia student Yeardley Love of Cockeysville, who was killed by her boyfriend, and the manhunt for the suspect in the killing of another Virginia student, Hannah Graham.

Longo testified that the van driver, Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., was ultimately responsible for Gray's care, and that Porter had notified a supervisor that Gray needed help. He said Goodson and the supervisor, Sgt. Alicia D. White — not Porter — had the responsibility to take further action.

"I believe [Porter's] actions were objectively reasonable under the circumstances he was confronted with," Longo said.

Goodson, who is charged with second-degree murder, is scheduled to go on trial after Porter. White is charged with manslaughter and is scheduled to go on trial after Goodson.

Porter testified that he did not take the time to fasten Gray's seat belt in part because he did not want to expose his gun to the detainee. Longo supported that explanation.

Schatzow said Gray's hands were handcuffed behind his back, and that by Porter's account, he was not acting out.

Schatzow raised Porter's actions with Longo, saying it would have taken but seconds to put him in a seat belt.

"Under what you're saying, danger can arise any moment," Schatzow said.

"Any second," Longo replied.

"So nobody gets seat-belted?"

"It's certainly within the discretion of the officer," Longo said.

Long-standing department policy directs officers to secure arrestees with seat belts. Days before Gray's arrest, the department emailed new directives that made it mandatory.

Porter testified that he did not see the directive.

Even with such orders, Longo said, officers can still make calls in the field — with the understanding that they could face administrative scrutiny.

"If their evaluation of the circumstances is such that there is no danger, that's a decision they have to make," Longo said.

jfenton@baltsun.com

krector@baltsun.com

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