Baltimore officers' text messages offer glimpse at mindset after Freddie Gray arrest. (Baltimore Sun video)
The day after Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered in Baltimore Police custody, Officer Zach Novak — who was involved but never charged in Gray’s arrest — responded to a text message from another officer about how he was holding up by expressing concern for a third colleague, Officer Edward Nero.
“I’m good. Nero’s a wreck,” Novak wrote. “They put him and 3 others on admin leave until further notice. He’s beating himself up over it even though he and nobody else did anything. [There] was literally no force at all involved in the whole incident.”
Gray had been found unconscious and not breathing in the back of a police van after a nearly 45-minute ride around the city, and speculation about what had caused his injuries was rampant.
“People hate police to begin with so everyone assumes we must have brutalized this guy,” Novak wrote. “This is fueled by the recent anti-police sentiment. Now everyone has to wait for the facts to slowly come out and exonerate everyone.”
“They will still riot and burn down their own community,” the second officer responded.
A week later, on April 27, 2015, rioting did erupt and the city did burn, most notably in the West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray grew up and was arrested.
Over the course of the next year, three officers — including Nero — would be acquitted of all the charges against them, and three others would have their charges dropped. And last month, disciplinary proceedings against five of the officers concluded with none of them receiving major punishment.
All of the officers are back to work on the police force.
Mike Davey, a police union attorney who helped represent the officers in the Gray case, declined to comment on their behalf this week.
The text messages from Novak and other officers were included in thousands of pages of investigative case files released this week by the Baltimore Police Department in response to Public Information Act requests from several media outlets, including The Baltimore Sun. The files include statements from witnesses, lists and descriptions of evidence, Gray’s criminal history and autopsy, DNA and serology reports from blood stains in the van, court records, investigators notesand hundreds of photographs.
They also include documents showing that investigators searched several phones, including some belonging to the officers charged in the case, but struggled to gain permission to search others, which they would later blame on a lack of police cooperation getting warrants.
Many of the documents in the investigative file, such as Gray’s autopsy, have been previously reported on by The Baltimore Sun.
The text messages from Novak’s cell phone were gathered as the result of a deal prosecutors struck with Novak, in which they offered him immunity in exchange for his cooperation.
During a grand jury hearing in the Gray case on May 19, 2015, Novak consented to investigators searching his iPhone for text messages sent and received since April 12, 2015, the day Gray was arrested, according to the files.
The messages included chats between Novak and other uninvolved officers, friends and family, and messages that appeared to have been deleted. They also included what appeared to be an ongoing group chat of messages between Novak and several of the officers who were charged criminally in the case — Nero, and Officers Garrett Miller and William Porter.
The messages were not introduced or discussed in the officers’ criminal or administrative trials. But they reveal something about their mindset during a time when they were not speaking publicly about the case.
In their private conversations, the officers were candid, even vulnerable. At times they resorted to gallows humor. They also expressed resentment that Gray’s death — which they described as being entirely unrelated to their own actions — had put them in the position they were in and caused so much strife and violence in the city.
The officers worried about the safety of their families, talked about arming themselves, discussed requests from investigators that they provide statements, mentioned efforts by friends to raise money on their behalf, and gathered for meals together, according to the records. They also criticized Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby — and Prince, when the now-dead singer brought Mosby on stage at a benefit concert for the city in early May 2015.
The officers discussed why Donta Allen, the other man in the policevan with Gray, would change his story in the press and fear for his own safety. And they devoured media coverage of the case and the rioting, sharing links with one another, criticizing the coverage — including some in The Baltimore Sun — and sometimes expressing shock or detached frustration at what was being reported.
“Pepper spray deployed,” wrote Miller, one of the bike officers who arrested Gray, shortly before 4 p.m. on April 27, 2015, the afternoon the city descended into rioting and looting.
“I am extremely afraid that someone’s decision of us will be based on what’s going on,” wrote Nero, another of the bike officers who arrested Gray.
Nero and Miller were both charged criminally four days later, along with Porter, van driver Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., Lt. Brian Rice and Sgt. Alicia White.
In the heat of the rioting on April 27, 2015, the officers were focused on the city. They wanted to be out responding to the chaos with their fellow officers.
Nero wrote the rioting was “a tragedy. We hope this all stops.”
Two days later, Miller wrote that a city councilman was saying on Fox News that there was “no way Gray broke his own neck,” a reference to Gray’s injuries in police custody, which included fractured vertebrae and a nearly-severed spinal cord.
“I guess he’s a doctor part time,” Porter quipped.
The next day, on April 30, Nero mentioned another news report suggesting Gray had caused his own injuries.
“This literally is a roller coaster of emotions. One second, the world is collapsing on us. The next, we get something like this that gives us hope,” he wrote.
“I’m gonna puke if I’m on this ride any longer,” Miller replied.
“I’m already sick to my stomach literally with all this,” Nero wrote. “I’m not healthy mentally or physically with all this going on.”
That day, Mosby stood on the steps of the War Memorial and announced charges against the six officers. People in the crowd before her, and residents throughout the West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray had been arrested, cheered and whistled. The police union called it a “rush to judgment.”
Days later, the officers — who all were released from custody after their arrests — were still texting and taking in news coverage of the case.
“Feel bad for the good people of the city,” Nero wrote.