Baltimore County police brutality: What's the standard?

Baltimore Police Foxtrot helicopter footage from Jan. 25 shows the arrest of 20-year-old Damontae Tyquan Farrar that involved Baltimore County police officer Christopher M. Spivey. Spivey is charged with four counts of second-degree assault stemming from this encounter.

Thirty minutes.

That's approximately how long it took a Baltimore County jury last week to acquit on all charges Christopher M. Spivey, the 29-year-old police officer charged with kicking and spitting on 20-year-old Diamontae Tyquan Farrar after he led police on a chase with a stolen car and then fled on foot in the Liberty Road area back in January. And they didn't just acquit him. After the verdict was announced, a number of jurors congratulated him. They thanked him for his service.


And here's the topper. After it was all over, a representative of the local police union chastised Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger for ever bringing charges in the first place. David Rose of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4 told The Baltimore Sun's Jessica Anderson that Mr. Shellenberger will now have to "regain some confidence with the troops at large." As if Mr. Shellenberger, who estimates his office has brought two criminal cases against police in the past decade and who is one of Maryland's leading voices to reinstitute the death penalty, was some kind of bleeding-heart liberal on crime.

There's just one problem with this quick decision and "Blue Lives Matter" chest-thumping and public scolding of the state's attorney: The video of the incident taken from the vantage of a city police helicopter tells a different story. And then there's the matter of race. Mr. Spivey is white. Mr. Farrar is black. While other communities across the country are incensed over such incidents and an apparent lack of accountability in the criminal justice system — including St. Louis where angry protests continue over the acquittal of a white police officer in the shooting death of a black defendant — there was nothing but silence to be heard after Thursday's ruling.

Did Mr. Spivey deserve to be convicted of second-degree assault? We would urge our readers to watch the video. It certainly appears damning. Perhaps kicking a defendant on the ground — including once when two other officers are restraining him — is a reasonable precaution, particularly in the heat of the moment. Maybe what appears to be spitting wasn't really. Perhaps. Maybe. It's possible.

But it's also possible that jurors in Baltimore County have been listening to all the post-Freddie Gray chatter from certain corners of the law enforcement community that siding against them is, as they say in the extortion racket, bad for business. There's a common narrative in the county: Don't let Baltimore's crime problems invade our space. Many county residents want police to use whatever tools are at their disposal to prevent this from happening — as if incidents of brutality accomplished much other than generous financial settlements to victims, like the $1.5 million paid out last year to the mother of 17-year-old Randallstown High School student Christopher Brown who died after an off-duty officer put a chokehold on him in 2012. Charges were brought against that officer, James D. LaBoard, too. He was acquitted.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the jury was right and that the state had failed to prove its case against Mr. Spivey. Certainly, Mr. Farrar is no model citizen. It was possible he might have had a gun. It's entirely reasonable to suggest Deputy State's Attorney Robin S. Coffin hadn't met the burden of proof. After all, the defense had an expert who testified that Mr. Spivey's actions were reasonable. But 30 minutes? Hearty congratulations from jurors? A suggestion the state's attorney has damaged his reputation with police? Watch the video, then decide.

Baltimore juries are often accused of "nullification." It's the idea that defendants are sometimes wrongly found innocent because the jury doesn't want to see the person punished or doesn't trust the police and prosecutors. Baltimore County residents like to think this is entirely a city problem. Maybe not.

At the very least, somebody needs to tone down the rhetoric that the state's attorney's office had no business prosecuting on the basis of that video. To not have brought charges would have sent a far more troubling message that police in Baltimore County can do whatever they like to a suspect, kick, spit, whatever. That, we've learned in Baltimore City, is the path to poisoning the department's relationship with the neighborhoods most in need of their protection. Everyone ought to be held accountable to reasonable standards of behavior, police included. When misconduct is ignored or excused, it does the rank-and-file officer no favor; it only makes the job that much more difficult and dangerous.

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