Getting rid of Officer Arthur Williams was the easy part for the Baltimore Police Department.
The video of his vicious beating of Dashawn McGrier was the single most convincing evidence of police brutality that I have ever seen. Williams resigned because his termination was a foregone conclusion.
It is what the department does with the unnamed officer seen in the video who was with Williams that will tell us much more about the BPD and where it is headed.
And the remarks on Monday about the unnamed officer by Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle got that process off to a bad start.
Enabling Bad Behavior
The number of active wrongdoers in the department is relatively small. The number of enablers, facilitators and legitimizers is not – and that must change very quickly if the department is going to survive.
By active wrongdoers, I mean the officers who actually do the beating, stealing, and lying on court documents. I acknowledge that what constitutes a “relatively small” number of active wrongdoers in a department with about 2,500 sworn officers is open to debate.
The active wrongdoers are the cancer in the department. The enablers, facilitators and legitimizers, however, are what has allowed the cancer to metastasize to a point where the BPD is on life support.
Enabling, facilitating and legitimizing includes standing around and doing or saying nothing while another officer violates the law. That is the issue raised by the conduct of the unnamed officer.
Absent exigent circumstances, police officers have a duty to take reasonable action to prevent or halt the commission of a crime that takes place in their presence when they are on duty.
The number of active wrongdoers on the force is relatively small. The number of enablers, facilitators and legitimizers is not.
The duty is imperative when the crime involves potential bodily harm to a victim. The duty goes to the core of what a police officer is and does, and I’ve never heard an officer question it.
For the legal purists, I am not talking about a duty that gives rise to civil liability. I am talking about a duty of employment, the violation of which can and does get police officers fired.
Excessive Force is a Crime
The unnamed officer shown in the video had a duty to take reasonable measures to stop the attack on McGrier once he realized that the punches being thrown by Williams were an excessive use of force.
Did he satisfy that duty? Based on what I have seen and read so far, it is my opinion that he did not.
In fairness to the unnamed officer, he was not facing Williams and McGrier initially and did not see what immediately preceded the first punch. He had other things to consider, including the presence of bystanders.
The unnamed officer shown in the video had a duty to take reasonable measures to stop the attack.
Turning his back on the bystanders to restrain Williams would have exposed him and Williams to risk, including from McGrier, who could have used the opportunity to punch Williams or try to seize his weapon. And all of this happened in about 10 seconds, so the unnamed officer had little time to react.
The unnamed officer did make what appeared to be half-hearted efforts to intervene. If the investigation reveals that he told Williams to stop, that would not be enough, in my view.
I believe that he should have grabbed Williams and pulled him off McGrier or grabbed McGrier and pulled him away from Williams, even if his action only prevented the last four or five punches from being landed.
If restraining Williams heightened the risk of harm to both officers, then that is a risk that the unnamed officer should have taken to protect McGrier.
A Disappointing Press Conference
At Monday’s press conference, the interim commissioner acknowledged that the unnamed officer had an obligation to protect McGrier from abuse by Williams.
After pointing out that some of the bystanders had sticks in their hands, Tuggle added, “He [the unnamed officer] had an obligation to keep himself safe. That’s hugely important.”
It also was “hugely important” that the unnamed officer protect McGrier from serious injury. I believe that Tuggle’s emphasis on officer safety was intended to curry favor with the rank-and-file, but it sent exactly the wrong message to the public.
Tuggle’s emphasis on officer safety sent exactly the wrong message to the public.
Here is better message, and a standard that I suggest that the BPD adopt: An officer must accept the same level of risk in protecting a citizen from another officer as he or she would accept in protecting another officer from a citizen.
Would the unnamed officer have intervened more aggressively if the roles of Williams and McGrier had been reversed, with McGrier as the puncher and Williams as the punching bag?
What do you think?
Furthermore, I believe that if Williams knew that his partner was going to have to jump in to stop him (and then report him), he would have thought twice before beating up McGrier.
Not everyone will agree with my opinion, including most police officers. But without a paradigm shift in the attitudes of its officers the BPD is never going to regain the trust of citizens convinced that its officers give little priority to their safety or civil rights.
If the department stays on its current course, policing the city will get harder and more dangerous and the collective risk to all officers will increase. There is an element of self-interest in reducing the antipathy toward the department.
An unsettlingly common sentiment in Baltimore is that “all cops are bad.” Think about how the narrative about this incident would have changed had the unnamed officer stopped the attack on McGrier.
It would have been taken as a sign of progress. Instead, there is nothing on the video to indicate that the BPD has made any progress at all.
David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014 after 31 years in the County Office of Law. His work included defending police officers in civil cases and advising on police disciplinary matters. He also served as a prosecutor in the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Office.