Six Baltimore police officers cleared of criminal charges in Freddie Gray's arrest and death will be investigated by Montgomery County police, who are leading the internal affairs reviews that could determine whether the officers can return to policing city streets.
Officers from the Washington suburb — with help from Howard County police — are interviewing Baltimore police officers and witnesses and examining city policies to determine whether Lt. Brian Rice and Officers Caesar Goodson Jr. and Edward Nero broke department rules during Gray's arrest and transport. Similar reviews are expected to begin for Officer Garrett Miller, Officer William Porter and Sgt. Alicia White after prosecutors dropped charges against the officers Wednesday.
Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died a week after suffering severe spinal injuries in the back of a police van in April 2015.
While it is rare for outside agencies to investigate officers, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the city asked the other departments a few months ago to lead the internal affairs reviews to assure the public of fairness and objectivity in the high-profile case.
"I know how important it is to the community to have faith and trust in the internal disciplinary system of the Police Department," Davis said in an interview. "To have a relationship built on trust in the community stems largely — not exclusively, but largely — on the timeliness and thoroughness of our internal investigations."
Prosecutors on Wednesday dropped all charges against three Baltimore police officers accused in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, bringing to an end one of the highest-profile criminal cases in the city's history with zero convictions.
As public attention shifts from the courtroom — a Baltimore judge acquitted the three officers who went to trial — some have expressed skepticism about the authenticity of the internal affairs reviews.
The process, largely shielded from public view, can stretch hundreds of days before it is determined whether officers are exonerated or face reprimands or firings in the wake of misconduct allegations.
After the acquittals of the three officers, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake urged the public to "allow the entire process to come to a conclusion." The city has been on edge since Gray's death, which sparked rioting, looting and arson on the day of his funeral. While security has been tightened at the courthouse, protests of the verdicts have been peaceful and have led to few arrests.
In most cases, the allegations are not sustained and officers are not disciplined after departmental review, according to a Baltimore Sun review of data from police agencies across the state.
Nearly nine out of 10 internal investigations by Montgomery County police do not result in officers being reprimanded or fired. The rate at which officers face discipline is roughly the same nationally and slightly higher in Baltimore.
"Police don't appear capable of policing themselves," said Lester Spence, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University who studies race and urban politics. "Based on the day-to-day experiences of working-class black men, we'd expect the police to have a far higher rate of wrongdoing than internal affairs finds."
Police say privacy laws prohibit them from releasing the results of an officer's internal affairs review to the public. It is unclear what information will be publicly available after officers in the Gray case are investigated.
The internal affairs investigation into Gray's death was initiated automatically. Most administrative reviews are triggered by complaints made by the public or fellow officers.
In those cases, the General Assembly passed legislation this year that cleared the way for those who make the complaints to receive letters explaining more about the outcome of the cases.
Starting from scratch
Chief Rodney Hill, who runs the city's internal affairs division, said Baltimore police have turned over evidence to Montgomery and Howard police, but those agencies will be collecting more evidence and interviewing witnesses.
"They're doing everything from scratch," Hill said. "We've given them full copies of the casebook — it's an extremely large casebook."
The outside agencies will determine whether the officers broke policy. Davis would then decide whether to fire or otherwise discipline them.
"The discipline is not up to Montgomery or Howard counties, it's up to me," the commissioner said.
If Davis decides to discipline the officers, they could request a police trial board — a tribunal of fellow officers who would reconsider the discipline.
Davis said every city officer who responded to or witnessed the Gray incident will be compelled to cooperate with the Montgomery and Howard investigation.
None of the administrative reviews will be concluded until all of the trials are over. The cases are interconnected, and officers can only be compelled to participate in an internal affairs interview after the conclusion of their criminal cases.
"They could say something that could impact all of the other officers," Davis said.
Columnist Dan Rodricks talks about the power of cell phone video and the blind spot in the Freddie Gray case. (Emma Patti Harris/Baltimore Sun video)
All of the officers pleaded not guilty. The four officers charged with felonies were suspended without pay. They are able to seek back pay, but their police powers will remain suspended until the conclusion of their administrative reviews. The city agreed this month to pay Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. more than $87,000 after he was found not guilty of second-degree murder and other charges.
The officers not charged with felonies have been assigned to administrative duties until the Internal Affairs investigations are completed.
Hill said city police appointed a high-ranking officer to serve as a liaison with Montgomery County and assigned a detective to provide any material the agency requests. Hill said the agencies have requested a number of the Baltimore department's general orders and policies.
Davis' predecessor, Anthony W. Batts, who was the commissioner at the time, acknowledged in the days after Gray's death that there had been breaches of policy, including officers' failure to place a seat belt on Gray or get him timely medical attention.
The officers' actions will be measured against departmental policies governing the use of force, transporting prisoners and when to arrest a suspect.
"There are numerous administrative areas that concern us, so we're going to start broadly with all six of these officers and narrow down to each and every individual role," Davis said.
After the acquittal of Lt. Brian Rice in the death of Freddie Gray, some readers wondered how news reporters had overlooked a key element of the case: Gray's ultimately fatal injury, they suggested, must have occurred before he was placed in the police van for his alleged "rough ride" through West Baltimore.
The commissioner said the Montgomery and Howard departments have reputations in the law enforcement community for consistently holding officers accountable, they have reviewed other Baltimore cases and were willing to accept the task.
"I've always been impressed with that level of accountability that they've been able to hold their police officers to while maintaining esprit de corps," Davis said.
The departments are conducting the reviews as a courtesy and at no extra cost to the city, a Baltimore police spokesman said.
Davis said departments in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties were excluded because he had worked for them previously.
Capt. Paul Starks, a spokesman for the Montgomery County police, said it was too soon to estimate how long the reviews would take.
"We will conduct a thorough and fair investigation by looking at all of the evidence and interviewing anyone with information," he said.
After a team of detective sergeants prepares a report on an administrative review, it is turned over to senior internal affairs staff to make a determination on the findings, Starks said.
A spokeswoman for Howard County police declined to discuss the review.
In Montgomery County, officers faced discipline in 59 of 511, or about 12 percent, of internal affairs cases stemming from complaints made from 2013 to 2015. In Howard County, officers faced discipline in 111 of 186 cases, or 60 percent, during the same period.
The rates vary across Maryland, as do the number of complaints.
Each department has different resources, policies, investigative approaches and reporting standards for internal affairs cases. Some agencies include less serious infractions, such as turning a report in late, in their statistics.
While no national data exists, policing experts estimate that officers are cleared in nine of 10 cases.
Baltimore police determined that officers should face discipline in 15 percent of their internal affairs cases — in 261 of the 1,695 investigations completed from 2013 through March of this year.
The standard for finding officers guilty of misconduct during an administrative review is different than in criminal proceedings.
In criminal trials, prosecutors must prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," a standard that is much stricter than the one applied to administrative reviews, said Eric P. Daigle, a former police officer and internal affairs consultant who has worked as an independent monitor for police departments.
The benchmark that internal affairs detectives must meet is a "preponderance of evidence,"the same standard as in civil trials.
A lot will depend on the quality of the investigation, including the strength of evidence collected by detectives and whether they give equal weight to the backgrounds of police and civilians.
The U.S. Justice Department has found that detectives sometimes place added scrutiny on the criminal records of witnesses but fail to evaluate the full histories of the police officers involved. The Justice Department is currently conducting a review of Baltimore's Police Department.
David Rocah, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the administrative review process is in dire need of reform.
"There is hardly a government function more important than what police do," Rocah said. "To say to the public at large that you have no right to know what is being done and how it is being investigated and disciplined is as anti-democratic an assertion that can possibly be made."
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Karen J. Kruger, director and general counsel for the Maryland Sheriffs' Association, said justice can also mean the rightful exoneration of an officer. Likewise, she said, the public should consider that a low rate of discipline as a result of administrative reviews could mean that law enforcement officers are not breaking the rules they are sworn to abide by.
"That's a perspective worth considering," Kruger said. "People complain about the police for a lot of reasons, and a lot of those reasons are not backed up by evidence."