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Suspects in Baltimore death: A police portrait in miniature

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BALTIMORE >> The first police officer Freddie Gray encountered on the morning he suffered a fatal spinal cord injury was Lt. Brian Rice, a seasoned 41-year-old white law enforcement officer who, several years earlier, had his guns confiscated by deputies who took him to a hospital after a worried ex-girlfriend expressed alarm about his well-being.

About 40 minutes later, when Gray, who was black, lay shackled in a police van and was no longer breathing, Sgt. Alicia White – a 30-year-old churchgoing black woman with a reputation as a rising star – tried to remove him. “She’s not even the type of person that would jaywalk,” one neighbor said.

In between, Gray was subdued and handcuffed by two rookie bicycle officers, each in his 20s, both white. A 25-year-old black patrolman arrived to check on him. The van driver, Officer Caesar Goodson, also black, is an old-timer at 45. Described by colleagues as “passive,” he never moved up the ranks.

In this mix of officers – who now face criminal charges in Gray’s death, including, for some, murder and manslaughter – one can see a portrait in miniature of the Baltimore Police Department, an agency mistrusted by many black residents, and one suffering from its own racial divide despite a decades-long effort to integrate. As the Justice Department begins a full-fledged civil rights investigation, the Gray case throws into sharp relief the department’s shortcomings and struggles for change.

“You can’t just label this something racial,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who lives just four blocks from West North and Pennsylvania avenues, where a burned and looted CVS store stands as a symbol of the riots set off by Gray’s death April 19. “When you have three African-American officers involved, you’ve got to say: ’Wait a minute, is there a system in place in which they don’t want to tell on each other? Has it become a routine?’”

Over the past three decades, Baltimore’s roughly 3,000-member police force has undergone a slow, painful process of integration. In 1984, the year the city settled a lawsuit that forced the department to hire and promote more minorities and women, 19 percent of officers were black. By 2007, blacks were 44 percent of the force; the city’s population is nearly two-thirds black. The commissioner, Anthony W. Batts, is black, and African-Americans hold other high-ranking posts.

Despite that, tensions between black residents and the police run deep. Last week’s decision by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to request a “pattern or practice” Justice Department inquiry – something she had long resisted, even as she pushed for changes – emphasizes that mistrust. Civil-rights advocates say it is long overdue.

So do some black police officers. In 2004, Sgt. Louis Hopson, now the board chairman of the Vanguard Justice Society, the association that represents the city’s black officers, was the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit alleging that the department systematically disciplined black officers more harshly than whites. In 2009, the city settled the case, agreeing to pay $2.5 million to more than a dozen plaintiffs and to hire an outside consultant to monitor the internal discipline process for three years.

But the problems have persisted, some black officers say. In March, court records show, Baltimore settled another bias suit, brought by a former officer, Richelle Johnson, a black woman who complained that she was forced to retire and that the department was more accommodating to white officers who were injured and requested light duty than to blacks. The terms of the settlement have not been made public, and a lawyer for Johnson would not discuss it.

An Internal Divide

“There are two Baltimores, and there are two Baltimore City Police Departments,” said Hopson, 63, a 35-year veteran. “This department is a very racist police department. The issues that you see manifesting themselves on the outside are the same problems we have been dealing with on the inside for years.”

The relentless drumbeat of criticism is depressing officer morale. Many police officers are furious with Rawlings-Blake, whom their union supported when she ran for mayor in 2011, for asking for the Justice Department review. They feel undermined as they work to maintain the peace in a city with a high homicide rate.

“Our police officers have a number of conflicting emotions, from anger and shock to sadness and depression,” Sgt. Robert F. Cherry, a 21-year veteran and former president of the Baltimore chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said in an interview. “It is a tough time to be a police officer.”

The union has stood firmly behind the six arrested in Gray’s death; Cherry accused Marilyn J. Mosby, the prosecutor who filed the charges, of “political opportunism” and wondered aloud if she had “an exit strategy for grossly overcharging our six officers.” Hopson said the Vanguard Justice Society was also planning a news conference for this week to show support for the three black officers.

White, the lone woman among them, is an example of how the six officers reflect the two Baltimores, and the two Baltimore Police Departments. After joining the force in 2010, she caught the eye of Hopson, who said he recruited her into a program he runs to prepare black officers to take tests required for promotions.

She became a sergeant this year, said Dana Neal, a nondenominational minister who said White regarded her as an adopted aunt. “She is a Christian and wants to be a good role model for young black women,” Neal said, adding that White hoped to “bridge the gap between the police and the neighborhoods.”

White grew up in Baltimore and lives here; Cherry said 35 percent of the force now lives in the city. But black residents have complained that too many officers live outside Baltimore and feel no attachment to it. White has worked for the Police Athletic League, helping young people with homework, and her church, New Bethlehem Baptist Church, is in Sandtown-Winchester, the blighted neighborhood where Gray grew up and was arrested before his fatal injury.

Now, she faces charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office; Mosby alleges White “did nothing” to help Gray even though he was lying on the floor of the van and unresponsive.

The encounter that led to Gray’s death began around 8:40 a.m. April 12, when the three white officers – Rice, Officer Edward Nero and Officer Garrett Miller – were patrolling the streets around the Gilmor Homes, a public housing development in West Baltimore. Rice, the lieutenant, spotted Gray, making “eye contact” with him, police have said, and Gray ran off.

Three years earlier, amid a dispute with his ex-girlfriend over custody of their child, Rice had been taken to a hospital by sheriff’s deputies in Carroll County, Maryland, who – apparently fearing he was unstable – confiscated his weapons and contacted his Baltimore police commanders, according to sheriff’s records and court filings. The documents were previously reported by The Guardian newspaper and The Associated Press.

In court papers, the ex-girlfriend’s husband, Andrew McAleer, a Baltimore firefighter, accused the lieutenant of a pattern of stalking and intimidation; at one point, he wrote that he feared he was “about to be killed by Brian Rice.” In January 2013, a judge granted McAleer a temporary “peace order” – a type of protective order – finding “reasonable grounds” that Rice had committed harassment and had trespassed. The order was rescinded a week later because of a lack of proof needed to make the protective order final, records show.

Baltimore police officials declined to comment on the court filings, or to say what, if any, medical treatment or disciplinary action Rice received. The lieutenant now faces one count of involuntary manslaughter, two counts of second-degree assault, two counts of misconduct in office and one count of false imprisonment.

Officers’ Stories

The two bicycle officers who arrested Gray, Miller, 26, and Nero, 29, have been on the force for just three years. Both face two counts of second-degree assault, two counts of misconduct in office and two counts of false imprisonment. The prosecutor asserts that Rice and the two officers failed to establish probable cause for Gray’s arrest and then, after placing him in handcuffs and leg shackles, did not secure him with a seatbelt in the police van, as required by police policy. The medical examiner has concluded that Gray’s fatal neck injury occurred in the van, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation.

All six officers have filed motions asserting that Mosby has multiple conflicts of interests in the case and asking that she be required to step aside or that all charges be dismissed.

In a brief interview outside his modest two-story beige brick home in the distant Baltimore suburb of Bel Air, Nero declined to address the charges against him. Standing in his doorway, he said he and his family were going through a difficult time, and were getting by with “a lot” of support from relatives and friends and by concentrating on their young daughter.

Nero’s neighbor Seth Ranneberger, a high school science teacher, said that on one of the rare occasions when the officer spoke of his work, he described being a Baltimore police officer as “one of those jobs – the doormat job – you do it and get no thanks for it.”

Officer William G. Porter – who arrived on the scene as backup when the van carrying Gray made the second of several stops – seemed to be coming to grips recently with just how tough his job was. Porter grew up in North Baltimore, in a transition neighborhood of simple brick rowhouses, just one block away from Guilford, a neighborhood of stately single-family homes. One neighbor, Keysha Waters, 40, described how, as a teenager, the future officer smelled a fire that had started in her home and rushed inside to grab her children and hustle them out the door. When he dropped out of college and joined the police academy, he told Waters that he wanted to “make a difference.”

She and others described Porter as quiet and respectful, but said he lately had seemed a bit worn down by his job. When Olivia Whitlock, a childhood friend, sent him a Facebook message in August saying another neighbor had seen him on the television news, he replied, “I’m surprised you don’t see me more often,” because there is so much crime in the tough Western District, where he worked.

Now Porter faces charges including involuntary manslaughter and second degree assault. Mosby says that although Gray complained he “could not breathe” and twice asked for a medic, Porter and Goodson, the van driver, ignored the request.

Goodson, whose neighbors in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville describe him as friendly and kind, faces the most serious charge, second-degree depraved-heart murder – in effect, murder with callous indifference, or an intent to cause an injury that could lead to death. This has led to speculation in Baltimore that Goodson, who faces other charges as well, was intentionally giving Gray a “rough ride,” meaning he intended to jostle him and cause serious injury – though Mosby has not used that term.

As Baltimore tries to make sense of what happened to Gray, and the Justice Department inquiry gets underway, some say city leaders are awakening to problems that black residents knew existed all along. Even Cummings, who said he had asked for a “pattern or practice” review before Rawlings-Blake, said he had learned something about Baltimore’s police. Never before, he said, had he heard the term “nickel ride,” another term for “rough ride.”

On the wall of his home, the congressman said, he keeps pictures that ran in The Baltimore Sun of people who have been beaten by the police. “That,” Cummings said, “seems to cry out for a deep dive.”

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