A Baltimore Police officer, shown in a viral video in January being kicked as people tried to free a man he was arresting, has been indicted after being accused of giving a misleading account about what touched off the incident.
Sgt. Welton Simpson, a 19-year veteran, said at the time that a 23-year-old man spit in his face and hit him. But body camera footage produced earlier this month by defense attorneys showed Simpson jawing with Zayne Abdullah before shoving him, setting off a scuffle that ended with Abdullah’s arrest and charges against two others.
A grand jury indicted Simpson on two counts Friday — giving a false statement to law enforcement and misconduct in office. The indictment alleges Simpson omitted key facts and escalated the situation, against BPD policy.
“We have shown again today that we are committed to upholding one standard of justice. Regardless of what your sex is, your religion, or your job — my office will hold you accountable,” State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement. “Wearing a uniform and a badge means that the public needs to trust you and believe you. The indictment alleges that the officer violated this trust by making false statements and engaging in misconduct. We cannot accept and will not tolerate such actions.”
Natalie Finegar, Abdullah’s defense attorney, said she was informed that charges against her client and a second man, Donnell Burgess, are being dropped by prosecutors on Monday.
Finegar said she was glad for the resolution but noted the evidence had long been in possession of law enforcement.
“It’s unfortunate my client spent four months incarcerated waiting for this investigation,” Finegar said.
The Police Department has not commented on the case, and would only say Friday that Simpson had been suspended and assigned to administrative duties pending an investigation. It was not clear whether Simpson had an attorney; police union President Mike Mancuso said he did not have enough information to comment.
Finegar and Burgess’ attorney, Hunter Pruette, mounted a campaign to show how Simpson’s story was disputed by body camera footage, and calling for the charges against their clients to be dropped.
The attorneys also produced another citizen video, from a different angle, that showed Abdullah repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe as Simpson held him down. They said Burgess intervened out of concern for Abdullah.
It reshaped the context of the viral January clip, which only showed Simpson being kicked by laughing bystanders and Burgess trying to pull Abdullah free.
City and state officials, including Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Mosby, condemned the actions shown in the viral video clip at the time, while Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the officer had done nothing wrong.
Neither Hogan nor Young has commented since the new videos emerged.
The charges also come one week after a sergeant in the Baltimore Police homicide unit was charged with kidnapping and extortion, for an incident in which county police say he threatened to arrest a contractor working on his home and drove him to the bank to take out money. Sgt. James Lloyd was on duty at the time, and three other detectives were present at one point.
The new indictment alleges Simpson also improperly used a choke hold on Abdullah, which prosecutors say is a “level 3” use of force and “prohibited unless deadly force is authorized.” He is not charged with assault, however.
In an internal police department supervisor review of Simpson’s actions, a supervisor working off of Simpson’s account said he showed great restraint in his handling of the incident.
“It’s clear to me more than ever that the police can’t police themselves,” Finegar said.
The defense attorneys said the incident was originally believed to not have been recorded by Simpson’s body camera. But it was later learned that Simpson’s camera had been on from a previous interaction, and kept rolling as he approached the Pennsylvania Avenue business where he encountered Abdullah.
The footage shows Simpson bumping into Abdullah, then telling him to “move the [expletive] out of the way.” Abdullah tells Simpson to be more careful. Simpson turns around and exchanges words with Abdullah and others, and tells them, “Go ahead, I’ve got enough for everybody.”
Abdullah leans in as he responds to Simpson, and Simpson shoves him. When Abdullah pushes back, he inadvertently turns off the camera.
Simpson told a responding officer that Abdullah had spit at him and pushed him first. Finegar and Pruette obtained documents from two weeks after the incident in which Simpson revised his story, saying that it was instead “spittle” that came from Abdullah as he spoke.
“At no time does Simpson’s BWC [body worn camera] nor the CCTV footage show either spittle or spit coming from Abdullah’s mouth,” the indictment says. “At no time during the encounter with the citizen did Simpson claim Abdullah spit in his face. Simpson only made this allegation once Abdullah was taken into custody and a police officer on scene asked Simpson what transpired.”
The indictment says that officers are required under BPD policy to deescalate citizen encounters, and that Simpson’s comments “incited rather than deescalated the confrontation.”
Simpson also said he was kicked in the head, which prosecutors say is not supported by the available video evidence, although there is a period of time in which Simpson struggled with Abdullah not captured on any of the available tapes.
City salary records show Simpson last year grossed $143,000 on a base salary of $101,000.