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by Peter Moskos

December 3, 2015

Trial of Officer Porter, Day 4

Here's the recap of Day 4 of the trial of Officer William Porter.

I'm not there and I'm no lawyer, so far be it from me to figure out what's going on.

But I'm having a tough time figuring out Porter's role in a crime. Today seemed to be focused on seat belts. Gray wasn't Porter's prisoner. It wasn't Porter's job to buckle him in.

I'm curious about this line: "The defense grilled him [Capt. Bartness] about the complexity and inanity of internal police rules, but Bartness did not take the bait."

Other useful facts.

From Sun columnist Dan Roderick:
For one thing, the revised rule about seat-belting all prisoners went out on a department-wide email blast with an 80-page attachment. Porter was assigned to the Western District, and the officers there complained about the district's slow, antiquated computer system. The Baltimore Police Department had general computer network issues earlier this year. And there was some kind of a virus back in the spring. And there’s no way to know if Porter ever received the email with the new seat belt policy. And the memo about the seat belts apparently was not read aloud at roll call.
I find it hard to believe that Porter or any cop would be unaware that a prisoner should be buckled in. But keep in mind I was there 15 years ago. Things can change.

But perhaps more important is this: the old rules, until a week before Gray's death, said you didn't have to buckle in a suspect if it wasn't safe for the officer to do so. It's absolutely probable that Porter did not get the new memo, that disallowed the "officer safety" exception. The new rule made a rule that I thought was the old rule. But there's no good way for an officer to get the new rule.

But I had no idea, from when I was there, that there was ever an "officer safety" exception to the seat belt rule. Keep in mind I never drove the wagon. And we (almost) never took prisoners in normal patrol cars. We had one cage car, so I did transport a few prisoners. But not often.

I'm not certain why this matter, but it does show you the SNAFU environment of a police department. When I was there, new G.O.'s were read at role call. Usually. If you weren't at work that day, you didn't get the memo. Or maybe you sergeant would give you the memo to put in your bursting binder. Now G.O.'s come out pretty often, and most are irrelevant to your job. So you ignore or don't understand them.

Now, apparently, they come in an email. With an 80-page attachment. And you have to access it on a shitty district computer that may not work. What is an officer supposed to do? Seriously? Does the whole squad line up and take turns reading the attachment? Or do go out and answer calls for service? Or better yet, give special attention to the drug corner by the church that the State's Attorney Mosby -- the current prosecutor -- pressured you to get rid of?

I mean when is the last time you read you read the fine print to the changes of your credit card? Or read the legalese before clicking "accept" on something online?

Should police officers be familiar with the rules? Of course. Can a police officer be familiar with every General Order? No. Is ignorance of the law ever a good excuse? Well, legally no. But morally, actually, yeah, it can be. And is the whole damn police organization one reflexive CYA designed to fuck a cop for violating some General Order when somebody needs to be fucked? Abso-fucking-lutely.


David Woycechowsky said...

yeah, yeah, yeah, he broke his own neck, etc.

Adam said...

I don't see how Porter's failure to use the seat belt has anything to do with Gray's death. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the crux of the case against Porter is that he didn't call for medical attention when he checked on Gray and discovered that he was injured, meaning Gray was already injured when Porter helped him back onto the bench.

The autopsy report makes clear that Porter first checked on Gray during the "4th stop," and the medical evidence was "most consistent with Mr. Gray sustaining the injury in the police van sometime after the 2nd stop where ankle restraints were placed and before the 4th stop when the driver called assistance." So Porter's failure to buckle Gray's seat belt is irrelevant, at least with regard to the most serious, involuntary manslaughter charge. I suppose reckless endangerment could be premised on the failure to buckle Gray's seat belt, but that seems like an awfully extreme charge if Porter's omission didn't result in any actual harm.

fh said...

The law is blunt. The question isn't whether Porter is an unlucky bastard who has got caught up in something he shouldn't have if there was some kind of cosmic justice. The question is whether he broke the law. Plenty of cases where being screwed has nothing to do with morality. You want screwed? Plenty of people get screwed all the time. Guy (Jack Lewis -googled it so that it just wasn't "some guy) just a few days ago got killed when a branch fell on him while he was hanging out watching a sunset with friends.

Adam said...

Huh? Whether Porter broke the law may not have anything to do with morality, but it has a lot to do with causation and mens rea. If Porter's failure to seat belt Gray didn't contribute to Gray's injuries, then that can't serve as evidence that Porter committed involuntary manslaughter. If Porter's failure to directly and immediately call an ambulance contributed to Gray's death, then the question is whether that failure amounted to "simple" or "gross" negligence.

fh said...

I guess I assumed that the van doors were opened at every stop and that Porter at least had the opportunity to step in at each stop and buckle (or choose not to buckle) the people in the van. My mistake if that is untrue.

Peter Moskos said...

I don't know about every stop. Certainly when they shackled him, they had a chance to then. So at least one time.

But I don't think it's Porter's job, either by custom or regulation or low, to seat belt somebody else's prisoner in somebody else's vehicle.

fh said...

I think you and I are agreeing that law has nothing to do with the morality of the situation. Porter may be screwed because he didn't follow the accepted, documented procedure and that (to me) means he broke the law. It doesn't necessarily matter that not following the correct procedure was the pattern and practice of the BPD. A defense that depends on the jury thinking like Western District BPD cops is going to fail so I hope that Porter has something better than this (for his sake) at the same time I hope he doesn't (for the sake of police accountability).

Adam said...

Right, fh. But I think it's quite a leap from a G.O. violation to a violation of the law. The "something better" defense I would have floated if I were Porter's defense attorney is the one I put in my first post above. According to the M.E. (a witness for the state), Gray suffered his fatal injury *before* Porter had any contact with him. So even assuming Porter had a duty to buckle Gray's seat belt, his failure to do so didn't contribute to Gray's death. However, Porter's failure to call the ambulance certainly did. That's why his defense seems to schizophrenic at this point. One argument cuts against the other. If Gray was injured before Porter checked on him, then the failure to use the seat belt didn't do Gray any harm, but that means Porter should have called for help. If Gray was NOT injured before Porter checked on him, then Porter had no obligation to call for help, but his failure to use the seat belt may have contributed to Gray's death. Based on the ME's report, I think the first version is correct. Assuming the jury thinks the same, it comes down to what you make of Porter's failure to call for an ambulance right away. He claims he told his sergeant and the wagon driver that Gray needed a medic, and he says he assumed they'd be taking Gray to the hospital themselves. He also might be helped by the argument that Gray had faked injury in the past and was probably even faking injury earlier that day. Does all that mitigate Porter's negligent behavior enough to absolve him of criminal liability? It might. The standard for criminal negligence is pretty high (wanton and reckless disregard for human life; indifference to the consequences of one's actions). We'll have to wait and see what the jury thinks.