Secret Supper is June 17th. Get your tickets before they sell out!

Two versions of being a cop in Baltimore on show in Porter trial

Porter trial asks, for police is it hard and fast rules or beat wisdom that determine how police act?

Jurors got two very different versions Wednesday of what it was like to be William Porter as a relatively inexperienced officer policing the streets of West Baltimore.

Prosecutors argued that officers have a clear set of rules and that failing to follow them — as they allege Porter did by not seat-belting Freddie Gray in a transport wagon or getting him medical care — is a serious criminal offense.

The defense, however, portrayed a dysfunctional police department that rushes officers to the streets without proper training, forcing them to learn as they go and follow the advice of veterans rather than standards and rules.

Porter is the first of six officers to stand trial in Gray's arrest and death in April.

Since then a debate has raged over policing in Baltimore's majority African-American neighborhoods. Outrage over Gray's death and simmering tensions over police treatment of residents fueled days of protests that erupted into riots, arson and looting on the day of his funeral.

The Justice Department is in the midst of a full-scale civil rights investigation of the department. The agency had already launched a collaborative review of the department after a Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements in lawsuits alleging brutality and other misconduct.

Police officials declined to comment on the defense's portrayal, citing a policy not to discuss ongoing court cases.

In an interview before the trial started, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he looks forward to the outcome of the federal probe and is working to reform the department.

In court on Wednesday, the prosecution and defense highlighted problems at the department.

Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow discussed police procedures at length, detailing the department's rules regarding the treatment of suspects and the training Porter received at the police academy.

In his presentation, Gary Proctor, one of Porter's lawyers, described the difficulties faced by officers who are often on the beat with insufficient backup and confront uncooperative suspects who resist arrest and would rather go to the hospital than jail.

Which perspective the jury accepts could help them decide whether to convict Porter of manslaughter, the most serious charge he faces, legal experts said.

"Both arguments go to the key issue in the case," said University of Baltimore law professor David Jaros, who watched opening statements in the case on Wednesday. "Did officer Porter recognize that he had a legal duty and knowingly ignored that legal duty with an awareness that would lead to a serious injury or death of Freddie Gray?"

Police Department orders have specified since 1997 that prisoners must be seat-belted, unless doing so would put an officer in danger, Schatzow told the jury. A few months before Gray was arrested, the department updated that policy to remove the exemption, making clear that all suspects must be seat-belted.

Porter received word of the new policy by email on April 9, Schatzow said.

"The defendant was bound by it," he said.

Porter knew the rules because he had been trained on them at the police academy, Schatzow said. A former military combat medic who became an instructor taught him about emergency care, Schatzow said, telling him that if someone asks for a medic to get them one. Porter also was taught to seat belt anyone put into a police vehicle, Schatzow said.

"The defendant knew that," he said.

But Proctor countered that training at the academy was brief and covered a lot of ground. While Porter was there, Proctor said, a cadet was shot in the head by an instructor. The cadet was left without an eye, and the instructor was convicted of reckless endangerment and jailed.

"It isn't some Ivy League school," Proctor said.

As for the updated policy, Proctor said officers received thousands of emails and could only check them at outdated computers at the office. The defense lawyer said another officer will testify that in 2,000 arrests he could count the number of times he had seat-belted a prisoner on one hand.

"Officer Porter didn't even know there was a rule," Proctor told the jury: "You can't hold him accountable for what nobody did."

The two sides also dispute whether Porter should have known to rush Gray to the hospital.

Schatzow said a five-second radio call for medical help could have saved Gray's life and that Porter's failure to act was a sign of his chilling indifference. Prosecutors have said that Gray asked for medical help.

A Baltimore Sun investigation after Gray's death showed that city police often disregard or are oblivious to injuries and illnesses among people they apprehend. Over nearly three years, records show correctional officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center have refused to admit nearly 2,600 detainees who were in police custody.

But Proctor described how suspects regularly fake injuries to avoid going straight to jail — a phenomenon known as "jailitis" — which ends up wasting officers' time. The first person Porter ever arrested faked a seizure, the lawyer said.

Porter knew Gray's history as someone who gave arresting officers trouble, Proctor told jurors, saying that one time he had tried to kick out he windows of a police cruiser.

"There was no outward sign of any injury," Proctor added.

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore officer, said that in his experience most police seat-belted defendants but that the department's book of general orders is a compilation of complex legal memos — "not a useful how-to guide" for police.

"It's impossible to follow all of the rules all of the time," said Moskos, now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He said police need rules that are easier to comprehend and give them flexibility to address a wide range of situations on the street.

But Joe Margulies, a Cornell University law professor, said Gray's arrest and transport should have been uncomplicated, and not a situation in which officers needed to think on their feet or bend rules.

"If the assertion is that how to handle a detained suspect is ambiguous and a nuanced situation over which reasonable people could disagree, that's just mistaken," he said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/iduncan

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
84°