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Violence surges as Baltimore police officers feel hesitant

BPD Lt.: Residents complaining about police "are going to get the police force they want, and God help them"

As the number of shootings and homicides has surged in Baltimore, some police officers say they feel hesitant on the job under intense public scrutiny and in the wake of criminal charges against six officers in the Freddie Gray case.

State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby's decision last week to charge the officers has stoked strong opinions across the country — including praise from those who want accountability and derision from some legal experts.

But perhaps the most jarring effect has been on the Baltimore Police Department.

"In 29 years, I've gone through some bad times, but I've never seen it this bad," said Lt. Kenneth Butler, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black Baltimore police officers. Officers "feel as though the state's attorney will hang them out to dry."

Several officers said in interviews they are concerned crime could spike as officers are hesitant to do their jobs, and criminals sense opportunity. Butler, a shift commander in the Southern District, said his officers are expressing reluctance to go after crime.

"I'm hearing it from guys who were go-getters, who would go out here and get the guns and the bad guys and drugs. They're hands-off now," Butler said. "I've never seen so many dejected faces.

"Policing, as we once knew it, has changed."

Lt. Victor Gearhart, a 33-year veteran who works in the Southern District, said residents with complaints about police "are going to get the police force they want, and God help them."

Edward C. Jackson, a retired Baltimore police colonel who teaches at Baltimore City Community College, said he is worried about crime spiking if officers go into a "work slowdown" to avoid proactive police work.

"Baltimore can ill afford having cops do the bare minimum," he said. "The bad guys are going to take advantage of a slowdown. It's a terrible situation for the city to be in."

The city has seen 40 shootings since April 28, the day after the city's most intense day of rioting, including 10 on Thursday alone. There also have been 15 homicides in that span, bringing the year's total to 82 — 20 more than at the same time last year.

One city leader said he doesn't believe officers are treading too cautiously on the job, but he acknowledged that the stress from protests, rioting and federal investigations is wearing on police, as is fatigue for officers who worked 14- and 15-hour days several days in a row during the unrest.

"You have a perfect storm," City Councilman Brandon M. Scott said. "First of all, I think everyone is tired. But you also have to realize for everything that's going on in the city last week, we still have a violence problem in the city, and it's just being exacerbated by the light being shined on Baltimore."

Scott said he doesn't believe officers are being "purposefully hesitant."

"They have a pride in their job," Scott said. "They would not do that to prove a point."

He urged officers to focus on their individual jobs and not the daily developments that grow out of the Gray case. Scott said he is asking for an immediate accounting of the well-being, staffing and deployment of officers as well as patrol strategies to ensure police haven't been spread too thin or deployed in the wrong places.

Scott said he does not believe the violence is spiraling out of control.

"I am concerned, and I don't think it is, but I want to make sure we're going to right the ship and put people where they need to be," Scott said.

Baltimore police said Friday that they're assessing their patrol plans to make sure the city is covered adequately.

"Every loss of life is tragic, and we have an obligation as a department to provide safe communities for our citizens," Baltimore police spokesman Sgt. Jarron Jackson said. "We're evaluating our deployment strategies to ensure that we're doing that."

It remains to be seen how the tensions will affect relations between police and prosecutors, who must work together to build cases.

Mosby often notes that she comes from a family with five generations of police officers, and during the announcement of the charges last week stressed they were not "an indictment of the entire force."

Gray, 25, died a week after sustaining a severed spine and other injuries while in police custody.

Mosby charged the driver of the police van that transported Gray with second-degree murder and the other officers with offenses that included involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment and misconduct in office.

On Friday, the attorneys for the six officers charged in Gray's death filed a motion to dismiss the case and asked for the recusal of Mosby, claiming "overzealous prosecution" and an array of conflicts of interest.

Mosby said in a statement this week that she would not discuss the pending case, but cautioned that prosecutors have information that supports the charges that has not been made public. Mosby declined to comment Friday.

Baltimore attorney J. Wyndal Gordon said officers should clean up their act if they are worried about being charged.

"Mosby has sent a clear message that the way they've been doing things in the past is no longer acceptable," Gordon said. "We're going to see more-attuned police officers. They will think before they act."

Legal analyst and civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom wrote on her blog that Mosby "did precisely what prosecutors are supposed to do" and that the shock surrounding her decision to charge the officers comes from a history of cases involving police being handled differently.

The police union has said the charges against the officers were rushed, and have pointed to prosecutors including incorrect identifying information on the charging documents. The state's attorney's office investigated the case for three weeks before charges were brought.

Officers and legal experts said they are concerned about Mosby's contention that Gray was falsely arrested. Mosby said that three officers failed to establish probable cause, as no crime had been committed. She said the knife Gray was carrying was not illegal under Maryland law, making the arrest "illegal."

Former federal prosecutor Jason Weinstein, who held a leadership post in the Justice Department, said the remedy for failing to establish proper probable cause is that "a defendant goes free — not that an officer goes to jail."

The result could have a "chilling effect" on officers, preventing them from making "good faith judgments" when making arrests, Weinstein said.

Jackson, the retired Baltimore police colonel, agreed.

"It's very dangerous to say the intent is criminal if the officer is simply wrong about probable cause," he said. "I don't think the response to that should be a criminal indictment of the police officer. Cops make mistakes all the time with arrests about probable cause. They're not lawyers. That's why we have courts to determine if the probable cause was sufficient."

Sgt. Robert F. Cherry, former president of the police union, said city officials have encouraged officers to perform aggressive enforcement to lower crime numbers.

"The same people they asked to aggressively police that area then turn around and say things like, 'Why were they chasing him?'" Cherry said, referring to Gray. "Officers engage in things like this every day."

Cherry said the Police Department could improve. As union president, he pushed a plan that would improve the quality of officers. Still, he sees an agency that has drastically reduced the number of arrests and brutality complaints, while the city has seen decreases in violent crime.

"We gained so much ground. We've come so far, and if only we had leaders who would give police credit during this whole crisis and admit that, while we can always improve, we wouldn't be able to get a lot of this done if we didn't have good relationships. Somehow that all got missed," Cherry said.

"It's not just fear of getting charged if a case doesn't meet Marilyn Mosby's expectation of a standard for probable cause. We're only doing what we were asked to do."

Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article

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