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Dan Rodricks

Was this a crime or just poor judgment by a young Baltimore cop? | COMMENTARY

In a criminal information filed August 12, Baltimore prosecutors charged Officer Christopher Nguyen with reckless endagerment and misconduct in office.

In the matter of Christopher Nguyen, a 25-year-old Baltimore police officer, we might have a first — a cop accused of being too nice to a criminal suspect. Or, if not exactly nice, certainly not aggressive enough.

In the still-new realm of prosecutors charging police officers with crimes, this one stands out. Two weeks ago, Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore State’s Attorney, accused Nguyen of reckless endangerment and misconduct in office for not intervening to stop an assault that, with keen mind-reading powers, the officer presumably should have seen coming.

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When cops abuse or brutalize citizens — or, in the case of Minnesota’s Derek Chauvin, when they murder one — they should be prosecuted and, if convicted, punished. The days of excusing excessive force by cops are hopefully over. But drawing the line and making a distinction between real criminality and poor judgment calls for a high level of prosecutorial discretion. The criminality in the Nguyen case strikes me as dubious.

Keep in mind: I do not have the benefit of seeing a police body camera recording of what happened. Access to it has been denied by both the Baltimore Police Department and Mosby’s staff because it will presumably be used in Nguyen’s prosecution. Also, Nguyen’s attorney declined to comment on the case. But I have documents — the criminal information Mosby filed Aug. 12 and Nguyen’s report of what happened on the day he allegedly neglected his duties to the point of criminality.

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This goes back a full year. Nguyen is charged with not acting to protect a victim of an assault in the late afternoon of Aug. 12, 2020.

According to the report he filed, Nguyen and another officer went to the 4200 block of Kolb Avenue, in Northeast Baltimore, and found a man lying on the sidewalk “with blood all over his head and face.” The man was later identified as Wayne Brown. The other officer tended to Brown and, while waiting for an emergency medical unit to arrive, Nguyen spoke to a man described as “the suspect” in his report. That man was identified as Kenneth Somers.

According to Nguyen, Somers claimed his car had been stolen a few days earlier, and that he was able to locate it on Kolb Avenue using a tracking device. He confronted Brown, who was at the wheel, and demanded that he step out of the car. “Mr. Brown refused,” Nguyen wrote in his report. “That’s when Mr. Somers opened the driver door and started beating up Mr. Brown. Mr. Somers pulled Mr. Brown out of the vehicle [and] continued to beat Mr. Brown up.”

Here’s a key part of Nguyen’s report: “This officer approached Mr. Brown to check on him at which time Mr. Somers followed and kicked Mr. Brown in the face where he was still laying on the ground.” The other officer ordered Somers to put his hands behind his back, threatening to use a Taser if he did not comply. Somers stopped and Nguyen placed him in handcuffs. (Somers has since been charged with attempted murder.)

For this Nguyen faces criminal charges and possibly the end of his brief career in law enforcement.

According to Mosby, Nguyen was in the midst of taking notes and investigating a crime when he “failed to secure or properly detain the suspect to protect the victim from further injury.” The charging document claims that Nguyen followed behind Somers — in contradiction to the officer’s report — and that Nguyen failed to place himself between the suspect and the victim when Somers allegedly kicked him.

Mosby says Nguyen “unlawfully, knowingly and corruptly” failed to live up to his duties as a sworn officer.

So the chief prosecutor considers it criminal that a young cop, just three years in uniform, did not take immediate action against a suspect and did not have the savvy to anticipate an assault.

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Is this a crime? It sounds more like poor judgment by an inexperienced cop to me.

To be sure, if I was Brown or a relative of his, I’d be furious that Nguyen didn’t immediately put Somers in handcuffs, and I might sue the BPD for not better training and supervising a young officer. But a crime?

Where’s the criminal intent? It seems to me that, to get a conviction, the state would have to prove Nguyen knew another assault was about to occur and consciously disregarded the threat.

Was Nguyen really being “corrupt” or was he just slow to recognize trouble? Should he stand trial or get some remedial training on crime scene procedure? Logic — remember that? — would suggest the latter.

Police officers need to be held accountable when they use force beyond what’s necessary to protect themselves and the public. Baltimore’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice is meant to address a history of brutality, racism and overly aggressive policing. This leaves cops to do their jobs under higher standards. We want them to make our communities safe; we want them to be proactive against criminals. We don’t want them beating up citizens.

Now, given all that, we’re going to prosecute a police officer who was not forceful enough? Seems like a stretch to me, and a confusing message for police.

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Citizens of Baltimore and Maryland paid to recruit and train Nguyen. Do we really want to send packing a cop who didn’t see a kick coming? Only deliberate and corrupt actions by cops should be considered criminal.


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