Former Cop: Incompetence Is No Excuse for Freddie Gray’s Death
Retired Baltimore Police Department Sergeant Michael Wood responds to the defense’s arguments
JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore, where the fourth day of the trial of Officer William Porter is underway right now. He is the first of six officers that’s going to be on trial for the death of Freddie Gray. I’ve been in the courtroom these last four days tweeting updates, putting updates on Facebook, and doing a few interviews, providing legal analysis of what’s happened.
But the events of today make it necessary for us to also get an officer’s perspective, because the two defense witnesses today and one from yesterday both spoke about policy in the police department. And specific policy as far as medical care and the seatbelting of passengers. And this is critical, because these are the two main points the prosecution is trying to make, that William Porter, the officer on trial, it was his responsibility to provide medical care for Freddie Gray and to ensure that he was seatbelted in the van.
Well, now to talk about this is Michael Wood. Michael is a retired Baltimore police sergeant, and he’s also what you could call a whistleblower, talking about some of the problems he saw and experienced within the Baltimore police force. Thanks so much, Michael, for joining us.
MICHAEL WOOD: No problem, how’re you doing.
NOOR: I’m doing well. And it was a very interesting day in the courthouse. I’m just going to take a look at my notes. And so the first two witnesses the prosecution presented yesterday and today were two people that trained Officer William Porter in the academy. The defense is arguing that Porter didn’t know he had to seatbelt Freddie Gray in, in that van where he suffered this injury during that ride.
So what’s your response to that?
WOOD: I mean, this–it’s a really hard argument that they’re going to make, because it’s Maryland law that we seatbelt everybody. And in the promotional guide that I wrote in 2010, I state in there that everyone that we put in a car must be seat buckled. The–who was it that—Bilheimer. Officer Bilheimer testified today. And I mean, he’s right. This is something that’s basics. It’s–of course they’re seatbelted in. I never thought otherwise.
The problem is is that it is common for people to obviously not be seatbelted. I didn’t see it a lot, but the evidence is blatantly obvious that it’s common. So maybe, you know, like–if that’s the norm, then I understand how psychologically he can think that that’s just the norm, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
NOOR: Right. In the opening argument the defense said they’re going to have a witness that–or they’re going to present a witness who’s a police officer who’s made something like 2,000 arrests. And he can count the amount of times he buckled a suspect in on his hand. Just a handful of times out of those, out of those thousands. And that’s part of their defense.
WOOD: Which is really odd, because then he is testifying to systemic policy violation, because that is the policy. He is confessing to common violations of the law on a routine basis, and he’s testifying that his supervision let this all go, and that everyone around him did nothing about it. I don’t know why–people were calling me a whistleblower. That’s a whistleblower right there, if that’s what we’re truly talking about that he’s confessing to.
NOOR: And so the third witness, second today, Martin Bartness, he’s the police commissioner’s chief of staff. And he was responsible for sending out the general orders. And one was actually sent out, it was written on April 3, and it was sent out on April 9. And this–one of those general orders sent out on April 9 had to do with seatbelting in suspects in the car.
Now, this is really interesting. Because in the cross examination the defense asked the police commissioner’s chief of staff, isn’t policy and procedure not a top priority for the Baltimore police department? Isn’t your priority catching bad guys?
WOOD: Well, the priority is accumulating stats. And whatever metrics they choose to fill those, those stats. And currently it’s arrests and it’s citation. And it’s to keep crime numbers down. That’s what they’re shooting for. Policy and procedure, they, obviously it’s not top, because it’s impossible. I’ve talked about this many times before. To be a successful supervisor in the Baltimore police department, what you have to do is correctly guess which rules you have to violate that day and won’t get caught for. That’s the only way that you can actually get through your day, because the words themselves, they conflict with one another and there’s too many expectations where, you know, you have to do something in a proper way. But nobody in command is supporting that those things get done in that slow, tedious, maybe, way that it needs to be to be proper.
NOOR: And that’s exactly what the defense’s argument, again, was today in cross-examination. You know, because this general order that Porter got on April 9, remember, Freddie Gray was arrested April 12, just three days later. It was one of–it was in an email that was 80 pages long, that general order was. And it was among thousands of pages of emails that he got within that one month span around Freddie Gray’s death.
And so basically the defense is arguing the police department was incompetent. They weren’t able to properly inform the police officers of these procedures and what the policies are, and the general orders, which are law.
WOOD: All right, don’t be fooled. No officer out there can do that job the way the general orders are written down. They simply can’t. So where do you draw that blame? It’s command that’s not letting them doing it, and not providing the support. I understand that the officers are the ones out there doing it and they can’t skirt the responsibility. But while they are the example, the eyes need to be looking a lot higher up. Because they’re not getting the support and the resources needed to do this.
Now, for a seatbelt violation, no commander is saying, hey, don’t take the time to put a seatbelt on. That’s not occurring. But for your more complex things.
NOOR: And so, do–so does that make this an effective argument for the defense, that–what you were saying. Does this–do you think this might help sway the jury?
WOOD: I don’t think it’s an effective defense. I don’t know how that’s going to affect the jury. But it’s like that ignorance to the law thing. It’s like saying, well, I know that I’m supposed to not violate his civil rights, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to just do that. And then I can get the drugs and make the arrest. I mean, just because you had some–that something’s the norm, or that you see other people violating it around you, you’re not supporting it. I mean, you can’t bend, skirt responsibility for that, especially for something so simple as clicking a seatbelt.
NOOR: So the other defense argument is that William Porter did not know Freddie Gray needed medical care. They also–the defense also argues that Freddie Gray was known to William Porter, he was known to make a big scene when getting arrested. And that it was common for suspects to fake injuries so they wouldn’t go to prison. What is your response to that?
WOOD: It is common. But–so in policing right now, when we see Tamir Rice get shot, and we see Laquan McDonald get shot, no one’s rendering aid. We have this thing where we–the police don’t render the aid. And that seems really weird to me. I don’t understand where this comes from. And especially in this case, where you’re saying it’s just procedural. So yes, people do that all the time. But so what? Take them to the hospital, the doctor clears them, and you take them to jail. It’s not like they get to avoid going to jail. They just waste some of your time. I mean, you’re on the clock. You’re getting paid. We got to put human beings first, and–.
So command is pressuring these guys to make that arrest, get back out onto the street, so they can go get that next stat. And they’re not interested in justice and they’re not interested in incentivizing these kind of things. Because what will happen is–the routine effect is that if Porter would have taken too long doing all these things, somebody would [get] been complaining about how long he was taking. So there’s this hurry up and take shortcut things, because proper–proper procedures for justice aren’t being supported by command and by resources.
NOOR: And so do you think this trial–either way, you know, whichever way it goes, guilty or not guilty for Porter and the other five officers, do you think this moment to actually address these policies, you know, this is coming out. The defense argument is that the Baltimore police department, you know, they do not have their, they do not have their stuff together. Like, it’s not–the rules aren’t transparent. They’re not given proper training. Do you think this is now an opportunity to kind of actually change those structural issues? Or do you think this will be an opportunity that will be squandered?
WOOD: I think it’s probably going to be squandered as far as Baltimore is concerned, at least for the immediate future. I mean, we thought we would have gotten some resources together when we had an academy instructor shoot a trainee at the academy [and] training would have stepped up. You’d think somebody would have focused then. But we have the same people in charge that were making the decisions involved in that. It’s just–I don’t know.
Policing is stuck in not opening their eyes and seeing the necessary change. So this is another example of it, yes. And we’re getting some more attention on this, yes. But will someone in Baltimore make that decision, I don’t know. I think we need to push as a nation for this to be a federal thing so that we can start a federal reform in policing, all in the proper path. Because you’re saying–well, Baltimore. But no agency around the nation that I’m aware of is incentivizing their officers to seek justice and not get arrests and fill out quotas, and get car stops and do civil seizures and fight the drug war, and raid houses. I mean, that’s what police do all over this country, and that’s, it’s not working.
NOOR: Michael Wood, thanks so much for joining us.
WOOD: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: Michael Wood is a retired Baltimore police sergeant. We’re going to have him on throughout the trial, giving his response to the arguments from the prosecution and defense. Stay tuned at TheRealNews.com, follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates throughout today, and the upcoming days and weeks, on this trial. Thank you so much for joining us.
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