The acquittal of Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. on all counts related to his role as the driver of the police van in which Freddie Gray sustained his fatal injuries comes as an anti-climax — not necessarily because it was the wrong verdict but because it came with no explanation of how the three-member trial board came to its conclusions. Unlike the meticulous discussions Circuit Judge Barry Williams provided for his not-guilty judgments in the criminal cases against Mr. Goodson and the other officers charged in Gray’s death we did not get — and under Maryland’s rules protecting personnel records, will not get — any hint about what persuaded the trial board that he violated no departmental rules that day two and a half years ago.
But the conclusions we can draw from the evidence presented and arguments made in the trial board don’t make the Baltimore Police Department look good. Mr. Goodson’s defense, in a nutshell, was that the department did such a poor job of training him in the job he held for more than a decade and failed so completely in disseminating its policies (like the requirement that detainees be seat belted) that he could not be held accountable. His attorneys added two other significant blows to the department’s case, getting the Montgomery County officer in charge of the investigation that led to the charges against Mr. Goodson to acknowledge a failure to follow up with key witnesses about alleged discrepancies in Mr. Goodson’s testimony and a failure to include evidence beneficial to the officer. Given how long it took for the investigation to be completed, and how high the stakes, mistakes like that are an inexcusable embarrassment.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis went to unusual lengths to increase the public’s confidence in the process, including farming out the investigation to other departments, naming a non-Baltimore officer to head the trial board and holding the proceedings in the very public setting of the University of Baltimore. But now we are left to wonder to what degree the case fell apart on the weaknesses in the investigation and not the actual facts of what happened the day Gray was injured.
Two more trial boards remain in this case, for Lt. Brian Rice and Sgt. Alicia White, and it would be natural for many to ask what the point is of proceeding given that the department was not able to secure a guilty verdict against Officer Goodson on even one of the 21 charges he faced. But it remains important to follow this process to the end. First, the fact that Mr. Goodson was found not guilty on 21 charges sounds a bit more dramatic than it is, in that many of them were essentially repetitions of the same underlying alleged offenses at each of the various stops he made while transporting Gray. And second, the roles the other two played in Gray’s arrest and transport are different, the investigations into their cases are different, and the precise nature of the charges they face are different. There is no reason to assume that their defenses, either on substantive or procedural grounds, will be the same, and there is no way to guess whether different trial boards will come to the same verdict that Officer Goodson’s did.
But this much is certain. No matter what happens in the trial boards, the onus is on Commissioner Davis to ensure that no future officers could defend themselves by tearing down the department in the way Officer Goodson did. Reforms since Freddie Gray’s death — some undertaken by Mr. Davis, some begun under his predecessor — have sought to address deficiencies in training and standards. Police brass can now tell whether officers have read emails containing new rules. The vans have been retrofitted to increase passenger safety, they are equipped with cameras, and surely no officer can now plead ignorance of the need to seat belt detainees. Police now wear body cameras. But the task of transforming the Baltimore Police Department into a well equipped, efficient, unfailingly professional organization has just begun.
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