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Top-ranked Baltimore officer cleared in police van death

Lt. Brian Rice. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Lt. Brian Rice. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

A police disciplinary board on Friday cleared the highest-ranking Baltimore officer involved in the 2015 arrest of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died from a spinal cord injury he sustained in a police van.

The three-member panel ruled that Lt. Brian Rice was not guilty of all 10 administrative charges related to Gray’s arrest and transport, meaning he can keep his job. The board was chaired by Prince George’s County Police Maj. Melvin Powell and also included two Baltimore police officials.

Rice appeared visibly relieved and hugged his attorney and others after the findings were read aloud. His lawyer, Michael Davey, later said the lieutenant is “extremely happy” with the decision.

The death of the 25-year-old set off Baltimore’s worst riots in decades and led to a federal investigation into allegations of police abuse. Baltimore and the Justice Department entered into a reform agreement after a scathing report by the federal agency outlined widespread misconduct and abuse within the city’s police department.

Gray’s death was “a terrible tragedy, and honestly that’s all it was,” Davey, a former policeman, told reporters. That tragedy is “not lost on anybody, especially Lt. Rice due to the fact he was there.”

Rice and other officers also were acquitted of criminal charges in Gray’s arrest and death. He has been working for the police department’s forensic services division.

The 10 administrative charges Rice faced during a trial this week focused on how he handled himself as shift commander during Gray’s arrest and transport. The charges ranged from failing to ensure Gray’s safety in the police van by not strapping him with a seat belt, to incompetence, to failure to monitor communications.

Gray was arrested April 12, 2015, after running from Rice and two other officers outside a public housing project. A neighbor’s video showed him handcuffed behind his back and hoisted into a police van. Officers later shackled his feet as well and put him face-down on the floor of the metal compartment. The van made a total of six stops during the roughly 45-minute journey to the nearby station. Gray was found unresponsive with a broken neck on arrival, and died a week later.

‘Accepting responsibility’

Neil Duke, the lead attorney for the police department, argued Rice had to face disciplinary actions because he was the officer in charge. He didn’t follow protocol in his leadership role, he argued, including failing to put Gray in a seatbelt and neglecting to act after he was told by a subordinate that the detained man appeared “lethargic” at the fifth stop.

“This is all about accepting personal responsibility. Leaders lead, others make excuses,” Duke said during his closing arguments.

But Davey argued that the prosecution failed to provide any evidence that could possibly justify discipline leading to the lieutenant losing his job.

“The evidence of this case, presented to you by the department, didn’t even come close,” Davey said.

Davey highlighted the officers’ testimony that Gray was “combative and violent” up to the van’s fifth stop.

He also blamed the department’s “very inefficient policies” and said transport vans were unsafe in 2015.

“They clearly had some dangerous equipment that these officers had to go out on the street with and honestly hope that no one was injured. And, unfortunately, on that day someone was,” Davey said outside the University of Baltimore, where the police trial board was held.

The same panel recently found the police van’s driver, Officer Caesar Goodson, not guilty of 21 charges.

Baltimore’s mayor has said she will renew efforts to persuade the legislature to add two civilians to police trial boards. Police union opposition has kept civilians off such panels in Baltimore, even as civilians join police in handling complaints in other cities.

Adam Jackson, director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an activist group that advocates for “the public policy interest of black people,” said he wasn’t surprised by the police board’s rulings with Rice and Goodson.

“Until we have more civilian participation I believe we will be dissatisfied with the results,” he said by phone after the board’s Rice ruling.

One other police officer, Sgt. Alicia White, still faces a trial board and possible termination related to Gray’s arrest and van transport. She is due to go to trial on Dec. 5.