Nero trial in death of Freddie Gray raises questions about police training—and who's responsible

Nero trial points to gaps in police training.

Baltimore City police officer Edward Nero was found not guilty of all charges at his trial in the death of Freddie Gray on Monday. And once again, the city got a glimpse of police procedures, training, and attitudes toward the residents they serve.

When Brandon Ross took the stand on the second day of the bench trial, it was the second time he'd had to relive the death of his friend Freddie Gray in a courtroom. Ross testified last December in the trial of Officer William Porter, which ended with a hung jury.

If Ross was emotional, he didn't show it.

Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe had Ross tell Judge Barry Williams what he did the morning of April 12. Ross said that he and Gray, along with another friend, met up at Gilmor Homes and walked to get coffee—except that they couldn't get coffee because the place wasn't open yet. They were walking back when Gray's interaction with Baltimore City Police began.

Throughout the six-day trial, attorneys on both sides scrutinized not only the police's pursuit and capture of Freddie Gray, but things that happened in the months and even years before that April morning.

Were officers right to pursue and arrest Gray in the first place? If Gray had been secured into the back of the police van that he was riding in, would he still be alive today? Did Nero ever read an email sent out by the Baltimore City Police Department advising officers that they were obligated to seatbelt all passengers? Was Nero ever trained in the proper way to put prisoners into police vans in the first place? Was Nero a "baby officer" that still needed supervision?

And there was the ever present question of race—which was never brought up outright, but there all the same. How could pre-conceived perceptions—real and imagined—have affected the way police dealt with Gray?

There were times during the trial where it seemed police that day weren't just suspicious of Gray, but the entire majority-black Gilmor Homes community where Gray was arrested.

Take this exchange between Ross and Nero's lawyer Marc Zayon.

"It's fair to say that there is drug selling in Gilmor Homes?" Zayon asked, beginning his cross examination.

"Where are drugs not being sold in Baltimore City?" Ross responded.

Well then, there is crime in Gilmor Homes, Zayon continued.

"There is crime in the whole world," Ross said.

Later, Zayon brought up the fact that Ross had called 911 to report what was going on between Gray and the police. He said that Ross lied—giving the 911 operator a fake name.

Under further examination by Bledsoe, Ross told the court why he had lied.

"I knew that I was going to be harassed and messed with by police," he said.

There was also the testimony from Officer Aaron Jackson, who responded to the scene where Gray was arrested. Jackson said the area was chaotic, with about 25 angry Gilmor Homes residents gathering to see what was going on. However, video that Bledsoe pulled up in court to corroborate his claims showed far fewer people.

"That's how I remember it," Jackson told Bledsoe, somewhat sheepishly.

The trial unearthed several possible weaknesses in police policy, specifically the issue of recruit training.

On the first day of the trial, the state called Brenda Vicenti to the stand. Vicenti is no longer with the department but worked as a field training officer coordinator. It was her job, she said, to make sure that officers were progressing through their training correctly. She did not train officers, but she did help them with the training process. Nero was one of the trainees she worked with.

She told the court that part of her job was to sign off on different topics when recruits were trained on them. However, she said that in the course of eight weeks, there simply isn't enough time to cover everything. One of the subjects that Nero never completed was prisoner transport. Even though he didn't complete it, Vicenti signed off in his manual so that he could continue progressing in his training. Why did she sign off on something she knew Nero had not completed? She wasn't sure; she only knew that was what she was expected to do.

That point was further driven home when prosecutors brought Officer Adam Long to the stand. Long said he has worked for the department for 21 years, both as an officer on the streets and as an instructor. He taught Nero at the academy and said part of the curriculum includes learning how to safely transport suspects in police vehicles—and that includes making sure they are secured with a seat belt.

Long said that he tried to train recruits using a police cruiser, but if he couldn't get one he would use a chair—something he demonstrated in court using Bledsoe as a stand-in suspect.

He said he usually only demonstrated once, and the lesson could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Long also said that there was no training that specifically focused on how to put a suspect in a police wagon, but there is now, "post-Freddie Gray."

He said that he would seat belt suspects unless it put him in danger. He called seat belting them "my responsibility."

But was Gray ever a danger to officers? Over the course of the trial, several officers reported that Gray rocked the van from side to side once he was inside it. However, Officer Garrett Miller, who is facing his own charges stemming from the incident, said that Gray was compliant once police apprehended him.

"Did he give up without a fight?" Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow asked. Miller said he did. When Schatzow asked if Gray was cooperating, Miller replied, "At the time, yes."

Schatzow also asked if Gray at any time bit, spat on, or head-butted the officers apprehending him. Miller said he did not.

"Did Gray assault you or the officers?" Schatzow asked. Miller said he did not.

Another issue the trial brought up: the way the police department disseminates information to officers. Nero's defense argued that one of the reasons their client wasn't culpable for Gray's death was that he never read an email the department sent out alerting police that they must seat belt passengers before taking them anywhere (prior to the change, seat belting was at the officer's discretion).

The state brought Andrew Jaffee, the police department's Director of Information Technology, to the stand to prove whether Nero even got email. Jaffee, who had been hired by the department a short time before Gray's death, was able to prove that Nero had received the email but not if he had opened or read it. He said that police have a few options for receiving communications from the department: They can receive information via email, police department-issued cell phones, or online.

Zayon said that Nero would have had to search through a lot of different emails to sort out which emails where important (say, policy changes or information about scheduling) and which ones were not (for example, baby showers and fundraisers). It seemed a somewhat weak argument when you consider that most people who have jobs that come with email addresses have to sort the wheat from the chaff every day.

During follow-up questioning, Schatzow asked Jaffee if all emails had subject lines that said what they were for. Jaffee said yes. An email denoting a new policy, for example, would have the words "new policy" in the subject line. "It doesn't say bake sale," Schatzow said.

One of the defense's witnesses—retired Charlottesville police chief and former Baltimore City Chief of Tactical Services Timothy Longo—brought up a possible alternative that the city could use, if it didn't already.

Zayon asked Longo if it is proper for police departments to alert officers about changes in policy via email. Longo said no, because there is no way of knowing if officers have reviewed the information or have a full understanding of it. He said that in Charlottesville, police review changes in policy face to face, making sure that officers have a thorough understanding before they head out on patrol.

In the end, though, Longo supported Nero's actions.

"I believe his conduct was reasonable based on the circumstances he was confronted with," he said.

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