BALTIMORE — Baltimore’s mayor said Wednesday she will renew a push to add two civilians to police trial boards after a board of three officers ruled that a police van driver violated no policies when a black man was fatally injured inside his van.
The death of Freddie Gray in 2015 a week after he was injured during a police van ride sparked riots and reform efforts in the state capital, but police union opposition has kept civilians off such panels in Baltimore, even as civilians join police in handling complaints in other cities.
“I do think it’s fair to have citizens sitting on the trial board, so we’ll be back in Annapolis asking for the two citizens on the trial board,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said, a day after the officers unanimously found Officer Caesar Goodson not guilty of 21 charges of violating department policies.
In response to the Gray case, Maryland lawmakers changed the law to enable local jurisdictions to put civilians on police trial boards if they choose, but in Baltimore, the reform has stalled in collective bargaining negotiations. The mayor wants the General Assembly to require civilian board membership in the city.
Frank Boston, a lobbyist who represents both the state Fraternal Order of Police and the Baltimore chapter, said the FOP is always open to having discussions with the mayor, but he said some issues are better suited for the collective bargaining process than the legislature.
“I think this is a collective bargaining issue,” Boston said.
Opponents say these boards have the power to ruin an officer’s career, so the people on them need a professional’s understanding of policing.
Sean Malone, an attorney who represented Goodson and has tried police disciplinary cases as both a prosecutor and defense counsel, said the resistance isn’t so much to civilians being on boards, but to having people on them who don’t have a background in police work.
“You just want educated, fair people who understand the nature of the police work, and if you get that, you’re going to get fair results whichever way it sorts out,” Malone said.
Supporters of the current process also say that Baltimore’s police trial boards often do find officers guilty — it happened to all 14 officers who went before them last year, and five out of seven so far this year, according to records on a city website.
Others point to Gray’s death and the outcome Goodson’s trial board as a glaring example of why civilian input is desperately needed. The board cleared Goodson of all 21 charges brought by the police department, despite only needing a preponderance of evidence to find him guilty, a lesser threshold than guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal trials.
Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy and senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, noted that Gray was conscious and verbal when officers placed him in Goodson’s van during his arrest, but when the van arrived at a police station less than 45 minutes later, he was unconscious with a fatal spinal cord injury. Mandatory policies weren’t complied with along the way, and yet the board found Goodson did not violate any of the 21 counts against him.
“It is appalling, yet predictable given the composition of the trial board,” Dixon said. “As long as the city lets law enforcement police themselves in lieu of meaningful civilian oversight, these proceedings will not result in accountability and will fail to strengthen community trust.”
Lawrence Grandpre, who has pushed for police trial board reforms for years as director of research for the group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said police accused of violating policies can appeal to a sense of solidarity with board members who also are on the force. Grandpre, who observed Goodson’s trial board hearing, said that’s what the defense did in this case.
“I don’t think you can trust justice can be served under the current arrangement,” Grandpre said.
Neil Duke, an attorney for the police department, argued during the six-day hearing that Goodson should be fired for failing in his duty to buckle Gray in a seatbelt and getting him medical attention when Gray asked for it. He also said Goodson made false statements by failing to record his actions on a log.
Goodson’s attorneys blamed the department, saying it failed to make sure all officers knew of a policy change making the seatbelts mandatory.
Of the six officers charged criminally in Gray’s death, Goodson faced the most serious charge in criminal court: murder. But he, Lt. Brian Rice and Officer Edward Nero were acquitted at trial last year, and then prosecutors dropped charges against Sgt. Alicia White and officers Garrett Miller and William Porter.
Porter faced no administrative charges. Nero and Miller did, and accepted disciplinary action, according to the police union attorney who represents them. Neither their attorney nor the department would say what that discipline was. Rice and White still face disciplinary action before an administrative board. Rice’s trial board is scheduled to begin Monday. White’s is scheduled to begin Dec. 5.