Baltimore Police and prosecutors pushed forward earlier this year with charges against two men involved in an altercation with a police officer — despite records showing the officer’s account quickly shifted and was contradicted by video, defense attorneys said Tuesday.
A short clip of the confrontation shared widely on social media in January showed people kicking an officer and attempting to free a man he was arresting. It was condemned by top city and state officials.
But last week defense attorneys Natalie Finegar and Hunter Pruette shared police body camera footage that contradicted the officer’s account that he was spit on and pushed first. That video instead showed the officer making first contact and no apparent spitting. And a second angle of the arrest showed the man repeatedly saying he could not breathe, which is what prompted a second man to attempt to free him.
The attorneys shared additional files Tuesday, showing that the officer, Sgt. Welton Simpson, shifted his account during an internal use of force investigation conducted just days later.
Instead of being spat on, Simpson later said “spittle came from the suspect’s mouth in my direction.”
“The body worn camera and cell phone video has changed the narrative about what actually happened,” Pruette said. “But what hasn’t [changed] is the state’s attorney’s willingness to continue this prosecution, the police department’s lack of coming out and giving an apology.”
The State’s Attorney’s Office re-issued a statement from last week, saying they can’t comment on active cases. Police did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
Zayne Abdullah and Donnell Burgess are on home detention awaiting trial on felony charges related to the incident. Abdullah is the man involved in the initial encounter and arrest, while Burgess is the man who tried to free him, which Pruette, his attorney, said was a justified and reasonable intervention.
Body camera footage shows Simpson, the sergeant, walking into a business in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave. and bumping into Abdullah. Simpson tells him, “Move out the [expletive] way,” and Abdullah takes exception. Simpson turns back toward Abdullah, who is joined by others cursing the officer. Simpson responds, “Go ahead, I’ve got enough for everybody.”
Abdullah leans in while telling Simpson he’ll strike him “next time,” and the officer pushes him and says, “Get out of my face!” A scuffle ensues in which Simpson’s camera is turned off.
New cell phone footage from people watching the incident shows Abdullah on the ground, saying repeatedly that he can’t breathe. Burgess tries to pull Abdullah away, in turn briefly dragging Simpson who is still holding on.
The defense attorneys obtained new police files from prosecutors that show a supervisor reviewed Simpson’s conduct days later and found him to be justified in taking Abdullah down to the ground.
Sgt. Tom Davis wrote that Simpson “raised his right arm slightly in defense and to create distance” when Abdullah pushed him. Simpson told the supervisor that during a period not captured by the body camera or the citizen cell phone video, others on scene immediately attempted to prevent him from detaining Abdullah and that Abdullah punched him multiple times. He said he was able to take down Abdullah using a leg sweep maneuver.
“Sgt. Simpson used the least amount of force to subdue and contain Mr. Abdullah, an individual who was displaying active aggression and arguably aggravated aggression by upon kicking Sgt. Simpson in his face,” wrote Davis, finding that in the totality of the incident Simpson showed “great restraint” and would have been justified to use a higher level of force.
Simpson’s statement does not say that Abdullah kicked him in the face.
In the aftermath of the incident, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said that based on a preliminary review, “the sergeant did nothing to provoke the assault, and the sergeant should be commended for using the appropriate amount of force to apprehend his assailant.”
“It’s clear to me more than ever that the police can’t police themselves,” said Finegar, who represents Abdullah.
She said that police need to immediately release body camera footage to the press or an oversight body that can make it public.
“Clearly, police will do a great deal to justify what happens on the streets,” Finegar said.