Trial boards for Gray officers serve a purpose

Baltimore’s police union has consistently held that internal disciplinary hearings for the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest are egregious piling-on that will further degrade the ability of city officers to fight crime. The opposite is true. The hearings for five of the six officers — which are now scheduled for the fall and winter — center on issues distinct from those considered in their criminal trials, follow rules different from those in circuit court and may well involve new evidence. And rather than demoralizing the rank and file, as the Fraternal Order of Police contends, they will help clarify questions about what standards the department intends to hold officers to in their interactions with the public.

The fact that all of the officers involved in Gray’s fateful 2015 arrest were found not guilty or had charges against them dropped does not mean they did everything right. The news that the Department of Justice will not bring criminal civil rights cases against any of them — always a long shot considering the high burden of proof involved, and probably a longer shot with the Trump administration in charge — doesn’t change anything either.

In announcing his not-guilty findings, Judge Barry Williams noted some actions that might have been violations of departmental rules, but such violations do not inherently rise to criminal acts. For example, he concluded that the state had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Caesar Goodson, who drove the van in which Gray was transported, “failed in his duty” to seat belt Gray at one point during the ride. To find him guilty of a crime, though, the state would have had to prove that Mr. Goodson “corruptly failed to do an act required by the duties of his office,” Judge Williams said, but the standards are not necessarily the same in a disciplinary hearing.

We should also not assume that the evidence the trial boards will hear will be the identical to that which was aired during the criminal trials. The recommendations for discipline — termination for Mr. Goodson, Lt. Brian Rice and Sgt. Alicia White, one-week suspensions for Officers Garrett Miller and Edward Nero — come after the police department reviewed the results of lengthy additional investigations by the Montgomery and Howard county police departments, the results of which have not been made public. (The sixth officer, William Porter, faces no discipline.) Moreover, while the accused officers had the right not to testify in their criminal trials, they can be subject to coerced questioning in a disciplinary proceeding.

Even beyond the questions of whether these five officers violated departmental rules and, if so, how seriously those violations should be punished, these proceedings serve a vital purpose for the department. The FOP contends that the hearings will “do nothing more than perpetuate a police force hesitant to exercise judgment when interacting with the public,” but in fact, they stand to provide substantial clarity for cops on the beat. The hearings offer the opportunity for Commissioner Kevin Davis’ administration to air the details of what happened the day Gray died in a way it has not before and to make clear what it believes the officers should have done differently. As Baltimore seeks to reset the relationship between police and the community as part of its consent decree with the federal government, these hearings should help the department move forward toward a new, constitutional and effective paradigm of policing.

The FOP has complained for the last two years that its members are beleaguered and unsupported — and that violence is rampant in the city as a result. But Commissioner Davis’ recent statement that the department has hired 144 officers this year and that recruitment is outpacing attrition for the first time in nearly a decade suggests that all the scrutiny of the force has not made working on the Baltimore Police Department intolerable. We cannot believe that a full and public airing of the facts of Freddie Gray’s arrest will change that, no matter what consequences may result.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°