Decoding the William Porter Trial: Baltimore Police Department's 'institutionalized mediocrity' laid bare in death of Freddie Gray

Baltimore police department also on trial in Gray's death

When Officer William Porter, one of six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, went on trial this month, the entire department was in some ways on trial as well. Surprisingly, Porter's own attorneys brought up the questionable policies and practices of the department as part of his defense.

Porter stands accused of several charges, including manslaughter and misconduct in office, to which he has pleaded not guilty and against which his lawyers have vigorously defended him. (At press time, the jury was still deliberating the charges.) Most of the key facts in the case, however, are not contested by either side.

The outcome of Freddie Gray's arrest on April 12 is itself a matter of record. He died a week later as a result of his injuries, injuries that no one denies were sustained while in police custody.

There is no question that following his arrest at the Gilmor Homes in West Baltimore, Gray spent 45 minutes in the back of a police transport van, at the end of which he was found with a neck so badly broken that the only debate during Porter's trial was whether it would have rendered him comatose and unable to breathe immediately, or would have deteriorated over the course of the ride.

No one disputes that Porter, when asked to check on Gray, did not go beyond notifying the van's driver, Officer Caesar Goodson, that Gray asked for medical help. Prosecutors fault Porter for not calling for a medic himself, but defense lawyers say that by notifying the driver, who according to police policy has sole custody of his passengers, Porter fulfilled his duty. Defense witnesses went so far as to say Porter had actually gone above and beyond that duty, checking on Gray again at a later stop. There, Porter notified his supervisor, Sgt. Alicia White, of Gray's request to go to a hospital.

There is also no question that Porter did not, at either point, put Gray in a seat belt—a violation of the department's written policies on transporting detainees, policies that were tightened just days ahead of the incident.

By the defense's own theory of that day's events, specifically that Gray's neck was broken in the last four minutes of his ride in the van, following regulations by belting Gray would almost certainly have saved the young man's life. However, Porter's lawyers argue that their client should be excused for the lapse for a number of reasons. Chief among those reasons, and the one most frequently argued during the trial, is that none of the other officers in the Western District, who were primarily responsible for training Porter, regularly belted detainees.

"It's really funny that [Porter's] lawyers have raised what is essentially institutionalized mediocrity as a legal defense," said Baltimore activist Lawrence Grandpre, Assistant Director of Research and Public Policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

Grandpre, who is the son of a Maryland state trooper and a Baltimore narcotics cop, has attended the Porter trial almost every day since jury selection began two weeks ago. Reflecting over the weekend on what he'd seen, Grandpre said that while Porter, who is black, may not have exhibited malice or overt racism, malicious intent isn't required for a police officer to perpetuate departmental practices that alternate between abuse and neglect in dealing with disadvantaged young black people like Gray.

"The banality of institutionalized racism can just function without folks having to think about it, without folks really having to take any active measures to engage it, it just happens," Grandpre said.

Reflecting on the "everybody's doing it" defense outside the North Calvert Street district courthouse where Porter's case is being heard, retired corrections officer Ralph E. Johnson, Jr., who has attended the trial from its start, said on Friday that Porter must bear some responsibility for his actions on the day Gray was injured.

"I would tell my officers that just because somebody does something that everybody else does, it doesn't make it right," said Johnson, who held the rank of sergeant and was a supervisor at the end of his 18 years on the job.

Johnson did say, however, that the department's command structure is also at fault for its failure both to establish clear rules for officers and to train them on those policies. A broken system of policing has in this case made victims of both citizens and officers, he said.

"These six officers are being punished because of the way the command structure managed the police force. They're the collateral damage of the policies and the culture that's been created," Johnson said.

Grandpre, a veteran of Baltimore's thriving debate-team community, said that during the trial he observed Porter's defense using the failures of the department as a whole to win sympathy for their client.

"The hope is that they can emphasize the concept of the individual person within the flawed system, that they can graft off of the inculcated American notion of cops as generally good people in difficult situations," Grandpre said.

Whatever the strategy behind the argument, Porter's defense did assert repeatedly that he could not be held accountable for not following to the letter departmental regulations they said were fundamentally incompatible with the working life of a beat cop.

To support their claim, defense lawyers called witnesses from within the department, high-level commanders with policy-making experience, to testify that the first and last rule that their agency promulgates is for officers to "use their discretion" when deciding how to best do their jobs.

According to Capt. Justin Reynolds, a 16-year veteran and former head of the police academy, Porter could not be expected to keep abreast of changes to the more than 1,700 pages of police department regulations, known as general orders, particularly because commanders in the Western District where Porter worked did not appear to follow rules for communicating them. In fact, Reynolds said, the Baltimore Police Department's regulations are of so little use to working cops that they are routinely obliged to toss them out in the course of doing their jobs.

"Common sense prevails over everything else," said Reynolds.

In Johnson's view, however, trying to position the discretion of the individual officer as the final measure of the justice—or injustice—of police actions in a case like Freddie Gray's amounts to circular logic, leaving essentially no standard at all.

"People have all kinds of opinions based on their personalities, based on their background, based on their perception of the environment," Johnson said. "You don't want to leave that to individuals—that's why we have the law."

Grandpre sees the notion of the police as an organization that enforces but is not, perhaps, fully subject to the law as part and parcel of the department's mindset.

"They have a fundamental disdain for the idea that the public should even have a role in engaging what they do, because they don't think the public has any ability to understand the conditions, or what it means to be a cop," Grandpre said.

"Being around cops my whole life, it's just the nature of this thin-blue-line mentality," he said.

In addition to high-ranking officers such as Reynolds, Porter's defense called beat cops who worked with him on the day Gray suffered his fatal injuries.

Officer Zachary Novak was among those who found Gray's lifeless body in the back of the police van when it arrived at district headquarters that afternoon, but was offered immunity by prosecutors in exchange for his testimony before the grand jury that indicted Porter.

In addition to the events of that day, Novak described the difficult conditions under which he and other officers in the Western work on a day-to-day basis. In particular, he noted that the district has a high call volume, but is, he said, chronically understaffed and underequipped.

Because it can't be argued that Freddie Gray's death was an acceptable outcome, the defense's portrait of the Western District seemed to displace criticisms of their client's actions onto a more nebulous "situation" in the Western District, according to Grandpre.

The implication of their argument, Grandpre said, is that the best change the city can make, both in penance for Gray's death and to prevent future tragedies, is to give the department more money, staff, and equipment, rather than hold Porter or any other officer personally accountable for their actions.

"But maybe what should be changed is the nature of the policing we're doing," Grandpre said.

All of which returns the discussion to the difficult question of whether it was fair to try Porter for, in Johnson's words, "doing what the average officer would do," even accepting Grandpre's argument that the average officer in Baltimore is perpetuating a harmful mediocrity.

"The entire point of having police as public employees is that they have to be held accountable to the community for their actions, and that's why it's legitimate to put him on trial, because that's the moment where the community, those 12 jurors from Baltimore City, they get to decide Porter's responsibility for that action," Grandpre said.

In considering the wisdom of putting Porter on trial, Johnson takes the long view, putting Gray's death in the context of innumerable cases of conflict, sometimes fatal, between cops and citizens.

"This time when it happened, collectively the city responded, businesses was burned, and the powers that be said 'OK, now we have to listen,'" Johnson said.

"We're here in court not because somebody's guilty or innocent, but because the community wanted to be heard," Johnson said.

Grandpre agrees, saying that the complexities of racism and policing in Baltimore can't be adequately summarized by a single trial or its verdict, although he fears some in the press and the general public may be looking for just such a shortcut.

"For better or worse, these trials are being seen as referenda on the question of whether a black person can be seen as a human being," Grandpre said.

"Maybe we should focus more on the conditions that lead people to need a trial like this to help them answer that question," he said. "Because the fact that they even have to ask that question, that's the problem, that's what we should be talking about, that's what we should be focusing on."

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