News / World

Highest-ranking officer faces board over in-custody death

BALTIMORE — The highest-ranking officer involved in the arrest of a black man who was fatally injured in a police van didn't give a reason for failing to buckle Freddie Gray into a seatbelt as required, telling internal police investigators he "just didn't do it," an investigator testified Monday at the start of the lieutenant's disciplinary proceeding.

Having been acquitted in a criminal trial last year, Lt. Brian Rice is now battling 10 administrative charges before a three-member police disciplinary board of three officers.

Rice's lawyer, Michael Davey, said in opening statements that the police department failed at "each and every" level to properly alert officers about a critical policy change — made just three days before Freddie Gray's arrest in April 2015. Gray died a week later from a spinal cord injury suffered during the van ride.

Detective Sgt. Thomas Curtis, an outside investigator from Montgomery County who interviewed Rice as a part of an internal police investigation, answered questions from Neil Duke, the attorney for the police department who is arguing Rice should face disciplinary actions up to losing his job.

"He didn't have an explanation," Curtis said, adding that Rice told investigators: "We just didn't."

But Davey argued that shift commanders like Rice still had discretion on whether to use a seatbelt. Under cross-examination by Davey, Curtis agreed the department failed to properly distribute the policy change. Under questioning by Duke, however, Curtis said Rice told investigators that "he may have" opened an email that contained the new policy.

But Curtis also criticized the department for failing to provide proper equipment or guidance for how to handle the transport of a combative detainee in a police van.

"I found nothing," Curtis said, when asked if there was any such guidance.

Officers who responded to the arrest have testified that Gray was not co-operative . He yelled as he was put into the van, attracting about a dozen people in a high-crime neighbourhood during a period of stepped-up policing efforts. Officers have testified that they tried to get Gray in the van and drive away due to concerns about the crowd.

"That's a reasonable decision by these officers," Davey said.

The van stopped a short distance away from the first stop so officers could put Gray in flex cuffs and leg shackles. Duke argues that Rice could have put Gray in a seatbelt at the second stop, when Gray was described as passive.

In his opening statement, Duke said Rice failed in his leadership role. He wrote on a board: "With rank comes responsibility."

"He's effectively the quarterback," Duke said. "All plays run through him."

But Davey highlighted the dangers all officer face when putting an unco-operative detainee in the back of a van, which he described as "a small steel box."

"That risk is always there," Davey said.

Duke also contends Rice failed in his role as a supervisor by neglecting to secure the scene at the van's sixth and final stop with Gray at a police station, when he was discovered to be severely injured. Officers were able to talk collectively, and the van's driver was able to drive the vehicle away to a hospital, Duke said. But Davey noted that Gray didn't die until a week later, and the van remained in service for another 24 shifts.

"That's not a crime scene," Davey said.

The panel will decide whether to hold Rice responsible on any of the charges, and the police commissioner will decide whether to take action, including potential firing. If the panel does not find Rice guilty of any charges the disciplinary case ends. Last week, an administrative board found Officer Caesar Goodson not guilty of 21 charges. Goodson was the van driver.

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