BALTIMORE – The trial of an officer cleared in the arrest of a young black man who died from injuries suffered in police custody has exposed deep systemic problems within the Baltimore Police Department: Officers are inadequately trained and routinely ignore rules and regulations designed to keep people safe.
The police commissioner acknowledged the failings Tuesday and announced a new program to help make sure officers read and understand general orders and policies. The announcement came less than 24 hours after a judge acquitted Officer Edward Nero of assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct charges in the arrest of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died a week after being critically injured in a police van.
“Are we aware of administrative shortcomings that have existed in the Baltimore Police Department? Yes,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said. “Are we aware of circumstances that have highlighted those deficiencies? Absolutely. And we’re reacting to that responsibly by making improvements.”
In his verdict, Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams said Nero played little role in Gray’s arrest and wasn’t responsible for the failure to buckle him into the police van where he suffered a broken neck. Gray’s death in April 2015 set off protests and rioting throughout the city.
It was the second straight setback for prosecutors. A manslaughter trial for Officer William Porter ended in December with a hung jury. It also exposed troubles within the police department.
Prosecutors plan to retry Porter in September. Prosecutors have not commented; they are under a gag order.
Critics who believe prosecutors were overzealous with charges against six police officers say the state is using the individual officers as a way to indict an entire police department.
WATCH: Latest coverage in trial of police in death of Freddie Gray
“The benefit of this is, it’s bringing attention to a real problem in policing: There are too many arrests and they lack probable cause, and individuals are stopped and frisked without reasonable suspicion,” said David Jaros, an assistant law professor at the University of Baltimore. “The problem is, I don’t think you use an individual to make that point.”
Gray’s neck was snapped sometime during a 45-minute ride in the back of police van, with his hands in cuffs and ankles in shackles.
On Monday, Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams ruled that Nero, who was there when Gray was detained and placed in the wagon, was simply doing his job, even when he made a choice not to buckle Gray into a seat belt.
Prosecutors tried to convince the judge that Nero was reckless for not buckling Gray in, an action required by an updated seat belt policy Nero’s attorney insists the officer never read.
The judge said his decision was influenced by a slew of witnesses who testified that Nero wasn’t trained properly, and didn’t understand the rules that applied to him. What’s more, the judge said Nero was reasonable in believing that the wagon driver, or his immediate supervisor who was also on scene, would belt Gray before the van drove away.
Among the witnesses was Sgt. Charles Sullivan, Nero’s field training officer who told the judge that the policeman’s hands-on training module was cut short for some reason, but couldn’t explain why. He said he never trained Nero on prisoner transport policies even though it was required.
Tessa Hill-Aston, the president of the Baltimore chapter for the NAACP, said after Nero’s acquittal that the trial proved more than anything else the deep failings of the police department. But even so, she said it isn’t enough for an officer to assume his supervisor will follow the rules.
“It speaks to the lack of police knowing their own rules and regulations,” she said. “It speaks to a lack of training, lack of protocol, lack of police officer being able to see that Freddie should have been buckled into the seat regardless of what their position is and who’s in charge. That’s where the system failed Freddie.”
Davis said Tuesday the new Power Document Management System, which will be rolled out July 1, will require officers to take quizzes based on information contained in general orders before signing their names at the bottom. Under the new system, officers who fail to review their policies could face administrative disciplinary measures.
Davis added that the department is also updating its use of force policy for the first time since 2003.
Asked if officers will now be unable to argue that they didn’t read or understand a policy they failed to follow, he was unequivocal in his answer.
“It will not be possible,” he said.