The highest-ranking officer who was charged in the in-custody death of Freddie Gray in 2015 was cleared of all charges by a departmental trial board last week. That result is not surprising since one of the three law enforcement officers on the administrative trial board is a controversial captain with a reputation for violating the civil rights of protesters during the protests following Gray’s death.
None of the officers criminally charged for Gray’s death were convicted. Lt. Brian Rice, the officer who first initiated a foot chase with the 25-year-old African-American man, was found not guilty of several charges, including involuntary manslaughter, on July 18, 2016.
Two days before the verdict was rendered by Judge Barry Williams, a group of activists held a protest at the city’s Artscape festival. The protest, billed as Afromation, was shut down when city police engaged in a mass arrest of people near where the protest had moved to an already-shut-down freeway ramp. The activists have filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department, Commissioner Kevin Davis, and Captain Charles Thompson.
“The protest was designed to draw attention to a series of incidents involving the unlawful use of police force against African-Americans,” the lawsuit reads.
Thompson, about whom activists have long complained, is one of three members of the panel who judged Rice in the administrative trial, where he was charged with 10 offenses. If Rice had been found guilty on any of them, he could have lost his job. But, activists point out, an officer like Thompson, who could also potentially face charges himself, has a vested interest in keeping the stakes low—and clearing Rice of all wrongdoing.
“Thompson’s presence on the trial board makes it clear that there is no intention to hold anyone accountable for the murder of Freddie Gray,” the Baltimore Bloc, an activist group involved in the lawsuit, wrote in a statement. “Thompson’s history of violence and corruption is well known, as his is particular hostility to people who seek to hold other violent officers accountable. He has physically assaulted and otherwise violated the rights not only of protestors but of citizens merely attempting to observe police in the aftermath of the shooting of an unarmed citizen. His inclusion on the board is an insult to Freddie Gray’s memory and to the citizens of Baltimore.”
The Baltimore Police Department says it had no role in choosing Thompson for the three-member panel.
“The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) requires members of the Administrative Hearing Board (AHB) to be selected randomly,” spokesperson T.J. Smith wrote in an emailed statement. “This is accomplished by a computer randomizer. The names of individuals are selected by a computer program; then, the respondent officer is given the opportunity to makes ‘strikes’ in accordance with the CBA. The department is not permitted to make ‘strikes’ and does not have discretion in the selection process.”
After they were arrested, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were allegedly “left in the cramped vans at the Northern District Police Station for between 6 and 10 hours” in 90-degree heat, according to the suit. One prisoner passed out. All charges against the protesters were later dropped.
The suit alleges that the officers, including Thompson, falsely imprisoned activists without grounds to stop or detain them, and that they did not give activists enough time to disperse after instructing them to do so.
Thompson’s antagonism toward the activist community is long-standing. He has been involved in the arrests of activists on dubious grounds at least since the earliest protests following Gray’s death. He has also threatened numerous journalists, including me, Brandon Soderberg, and Reginald Thomas II.
The Afromation suit alleges that Thompson has told plaintiff Christopher Comeau that he “fucking hates” him and told Comeau he was “going to fucking sue your ass if you blow my ear drums out” with a bullhorn.
Thompson arrested Comeau two weeks after the suit was filed as Comeau filmed the arrest of another activist in City Hall. “No one unassociated with BPD has accused me of doing anything beyond filming at the time of that arrest,” Comeau said, although Thompson alleges that he was assaulted by Comeau, whose Nov. 16 trial was postponed because Thompson was still serving on the trial board.
“The irony is not lost on me that, at the same time I head to court . . . [to] face four charges, including second degree assault, the officer who has illegally arrested me and my friends on multiple occasions will be judging whether or not Brian Rice made an illegal arrest,” Comeau said.
In her criminal cases against officers Garrett Miller and Edward Nero, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby pressed the novel legal theory that making an arrest without meeting the legal standard of probable cause is assault. Nero was found not guilty when Miller testified that he was the one who arrested Gray. Charges against Miller were dropped after Rice was found not guilty and so the theory was never tested.
It did not even come up in the administrative proceedings, where the three-member panel was provided opportunities to ask questions of the witnesses.
“Did you think that any use of force occurred?” Thompson asked Miller at one point.
“No, sir,” Miller responded, satisfying Thompson.
But if Miller’s case had gone forward, it is possible that Thompson himself would be facing criminal charges, as well as a civil suit, over the Afromation mass arrest.
Brian Rice had faced administrative leave before April 12, 2017, when he called in an order to chase Freddie Gray. Documents obtained by the Guardian in 2015 showed that an ex-girlfriend claimed that Rice threatened to kill her when she tried to leave a house they had once shared. She filed a restraining order and said he kept an AK-47 assault rifle in the house.
In 2012, Rice reportedly threatened to kill both himself and the partner of one of Rice’s exes. “I witnessed Brian Rice remove a black semiautomatic handgun from the trunk of his vehicle,” the man wrote, adding that Rice sent “harassing and sexually explicit text messages” and “caused me to become distraught and fear my life was about to end.”
The man added that Rice encouraged his children to use a gun to shoot photographs of their mother and her new partner.
After this alleged confrontation, Rice’s guns were confiscated and he was temporarily relieved of duty.
But he was back in office by April 2015 and in charge of other officers. If there were a more robust trial board or disciplinary system that did not rely on officers like Thompson, perhaps he would not have been on the street when Gray was killed.
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