Baltimore Officer Says It’s Dangerous to Seatbelt Prisoners

In this June 10, 2016, file photo, Officer Caesar Goodson, center, leaves the courthouse after his trial in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

BALTIMORE (AP) — The Baltimore officer that arrested a Black man who later suffered fatal injuries in a police van testified at the van driver’s disciplinary hearing Wednesday that he still considers it dangerous to put a seatbelt on an uncooperative prisoner in the confines of a police van, even though current police policy now requires it.

Until a few days before Freddie Gray’s 2015 arrest, the department’s policy had allowed for police discretion for safety reasons when putting on a suspect’s seatbelt. During the disciplinary hearing for Officer Caesar Goodson, who is now fighting for his job, Officer Garrett Miller testified that “it’s still dangerous.”

“I was never afforded the opportunity to have a negative experience because I never did it,” Miller said when asked by one of Goodson’s lawyers whether he had any personal experience with putting a seatbelt on a prisoner in a van.

Gray was handcuffed and shackled in the back of the van without a seatbelt during the nearly 45-minute van ride to a police station after his arrest. Gray died of a spinal cord injury a week later, prompting days of protests and rioting.

A three-member police disciplinary board adjourned midway through the third day of testimony in Goodson’s case so they could view the van for themselves.

Neil Duke, an attorney for the department, is arguing that Goodson should be fired for never strapping Gray in. Officers have testified that they were in a hurry to drive away from an angry crowd, but Duke has argued that they could have put a seatbelt around Gray during one of the several subsequent stops the vehicle made on the way to the station. Duke also contends Goodson failed to take Gray to a hospital, as Gray requested. Goodson is also accused of making false statements.

Duke rested his case Wednesday, after calling several officers who were involved with the arrest to testify this week.

Sean Malone, Goodson’s lawyer, says it’s the police department that failed in its duty by failing to inform officers about a new policy that required officers to seatbelt prisoners in the back of the van. The policy was only days old at the time of the incident. Officers who responded to Gray’s arrest have testified they were not aware of the policy change.

Malone asked the disciplinary board on Wednesday to dismiss the case, partly because none of the officers knew about the policy.

“The duty was breached at a higher level,” Malone said, referring to officials in the police department.

Malone also contends that internal investigators failed to provide evidence favorable to Goodson, either to his legal team or to the panel that brought charges against Goodson.

“That hurts us in the preparation of our case,” Malone said.

Malone also says Duke has failed to prove Goodson made false statements, accusations he says are based on faulty memories affected by the stress of the situation and time.

The board rejected Malone’s move to dismiss charges. The hearing is expected to last into next week.

Maryland changed the law last year to open trial boards to the public, but the outcomes are barred from being publicly released because the board’s decision and any punishment are considered “personnel records.”

Six officers were charged in Gray’s death. Goodson had faced the most serious charge — murder. Goodson, Officer Edward Nero and Lt. Brian Rice were acquitted at trial last year. After the acquittals, prosecutors dropped the charges against the remaining three officers, Miller, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer William Porter, whose first trial ended in a hung jury.

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