Decision sparks outrage in Baltimore's black community
(Official Decision included in article)
Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein issued a six page press release today, articulating the reasons behind his decision not to prosecute three Baltimore City police officers in the death of 46-year Anthony Anderson. Highlighting the completion of a comprehensive investigation performed by his office, Bernstein concluded that 'criminal charges were not warranted in the tragic death of Mr. Anderson'.
“The evidence establishes that the officer used an objectively reasonable amount of force under the circumstances based on the law and BPD training guidelines regarding use of force.” - Gregg Bernstein
The Anderson case made national news last year when the 46-year old East Baltimore resident was apprehended by plainclothes officers known as 'knockers' operating as a specialized unit known as the Violent Crime Impact Section. Acting off the suspicion that Anderson was just involved in a hand-to-hand drug transaction, the officers approached Anderson and from several witness accounts – including Anderson's family – forcibly slammed Anderson to the ground, causing the suspect to eventually suffer internal injuries that essentially caused his death less than hour later.
Initially, officers involved with the case stated in their report that Anderson appeared to stuff narcotics in his mouth upon their approach, and blamed his death on asphyxiation; however, a medical examiner's report later debunked that statement when they ruled Anderson's death a homicide based on 'blunt force injuries to the torso'. It was at that point that community leaders began questioning the motives behind the officers original report that turned out to be a lie, and began investigating an arrest that was anything but typical. Multiple witnesses attested to Anderson's innocence, departing from a local corner store with his family members – including his 2-year old granddaughter – when officers approached him and 'man handled him for no apparent reason'.
Those accounts outraged activists and members of Anderson's East Baltimore neighborhood, as they held rallies and protests demanding the state's attorney charge the three BCPD officers with murder in a case that seemed clear cut. The officers involved, all members of a now disbanded specialized unit, were suspended with pay but never faced any internal review process or investigation (though that may still occur), and no longer face criminal charges either. However, activists and the Anderson family have filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, who have started their own investigation into the case; as more activists are choosing this federal route based on what they believe is local politics trumping common sense and justice for the average citizen.
“This decision will only further exacerbated the tensions and distrust of the black community towards the Baltimore City Police and the state prosecutor's office; and it scares me – and any other law abiding black citizen of Baltimore – that officers are allowed to continue in a 'protect and serve' capacity, when they clearly took a man's life – whether it was accidental or intentional is irrelevant at this point,” says community activist Kinji Scott, who has led the efforts to call attention to the Anderson case over the past few months.
In fact, Anderson's case only highlights a larger problem when trying to get officers charged with the deaths of Baltimore citizens, as there were 13-officer related homicides last year with zero charges filed against any of those officers. “This is a blatant slap-in-the-face and disregard for the lives of African Americans here in the City of Baltimore,” says Nakia Washington, whose former boyfriend died at the hands of the BCPD on March 31, 2012. George Booker Wells III was one of those thirteen open cases, a 29-year old black man who was shot six times by officers (though the initial report said he was shot once), only a few feet away from his mother's house on Calloway Avenue.
“The police have just been given the green light by the prosecutor, a hit put out on the heads of any and all black people in Baltimore, to kill us at will without fear of repercussions or consequences,” says Washington, who also stated that she now lives in constant fear of retribution and harm that could be placed on her at the very hands of those that took her loved ones life just last year. “To publicly condone the the irrational and unjustifiable acts of the BCPD is despicable, as racial bias and inequality will continue to suffocate our community as long as justice remains for a chosen few.”
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Bernstein's statement stating his reason not to charge officers can be found in full here:
We are announcing today that we have completed a comprehensive investigation into the tragic death of Anthony Anderson on September 21, 2012 while in police custody, and have concluded that criminal charges are not warranted against any of the three officers involved in Mr. Anderson’s arrest.
Our investigation determined that while Detective Todd Strohman’s actions did cause the death of Mr. Anderson during the course of a legitimate arrest, his use of force was not excessive to a degree that would warrant criminal prosecution; instead, the evidence establishes that the officer used an objectively reasonable amount of force under the circumstances based on the law and BPD training guidelines regarding use of force.
Before I discuss the evidence in greater detail, let me take a moment to state again that Mr. Anderson’s death was a terrible tragedy. I met with Mr. Anderson’s family this morning to privately share with them the results of our investigation and to personally express my sympathies. Although my words, I am sure, provide little solace, my hope is that the completion of this comprehensive and unbiased investigation will help them achieve some sense of closure.
Our investigation consisted of interviews of two of the officers involved; interviews of Mr. Anderson’s family members who were present at the scene and observed various parts of the encounter; interviews of independent third-party witnesses who also were present in the area and observed various parts of the incident; interviews of the paramedics who were called to the scene; an examination of the scene; forensic analysis of DNA evidence taken from the scene; analysis of drugs taken from Mr. Anderson at the time of his arrest; a review of BPD training guidelines regarding use of force by BPD; a review of the autopsy report; and interviews with the assistant medical examiner who performed the autopsy.
The investigation revealed the following. The three officers involved are part of BPD’s former Violent Crime Impact Section, a specialized unit whose purpose was to patrol in areas where there is a high incidence of drug activity and violence. They operate in plain clothes in unmarked vehicles, but wear bullet-proof vests with the word “police” written in large letters on their vests and their police identification in full view. At the time of the incident, Det. Strohman had been with BPD for three years and assigned to VCIS for less than one year. The other two officers involved, Detective Gregory Boyd and Detective Michael Vodarick, had been with BPD for 16 and seven years, respectfully, and with VCIS for seven and three years, respectively.
Detectives Boyd and Vodarick, who were not involved in the physical encounter with Mr. Anderson, had worked together for the past three years on a regular basis; Strohman had worked with them infrequently. All three officers had spent a substantial part of their time in the area where the incident occurred — a vacant lot on the north side of East Biddle Street between North Patterson Street and North Montford Street in East Baltimore. This is an area known for extensive drug activity.
On September 21, 2012, the three detectives were patrolling in their unmarked vehicle in the area of Biddle Street and North Patterson Avenue. They were working the 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. shift. At approximately 6 p.m., they were traveling southbound on North Patterson Avenue. At the intersection of Patterson and East Biddle Street, they observed to their left, approximately 30 yards down Biddle Street in front of a bar on the corner of Biddle and Bradford Street, a suspected drug transaction between two males — Anthony Anderson and another, unknown individual.
A few minutes earlier, Mr. Anderson had returned to his mother’s house in the 1200 block of Montford Avenue after shopping with his daughter. Mr. Anderson had then walked across the vacant lot and into the bar where he purchased alcohol. As Mr. Anderson exited the bar carrying a black plastic bag with the alcohol, he engaged in a conversation with another individual, reached into his pocket, and handed suspected narcotics to the unknown individual. This is the transaction that the officers observed, and which several other witnesses at the scene who we interviewed also observed.
Observing the transaction, the officers turned left onto East Biddle Street for the purpose of making an arrest and seizing the narcotics. One of the bystanders standing in front of the bar called out, "knockers," which is slang for plainclothes police. Other witnesses have said that numerous people shouted out “5-0,” which is also slang for police. Mr. Anderson and the other individual broke away from each other and began walking in opposite directions, with the unknown individual walking south on Bradford and Mr. Anderson walking across Biddle Street toward the vacant lot. The vacant lot consists of hard, packed dirt and patches of grass. Once on the lot, Mr. Anderson began walking in a northeast direction on a diagonal, worn path toward Montford Street where his car was parked.
Believing Mr. Anderson to be the seller, the officers followed him and pulled their car alongside the curb on the north side of Biddle Street. Detective Strohman exited from the rear driver’s side, instructing Mr. Anderson to stop by identifying himself as a law enforcement officer or similar words to that effect. Mr. Anderson looked back over his shoulder, but continued to walk away at a quickening pace. As Detective Strohman approached Mr. Anderson, he observed Mr. Anderson put his hand in his right pocket and remove a plastic baggie containing narcotics, which he attempted to put into his mouth. In an effort to keep Mr. Anderson from ingesting the narcotics, and in order to effectuate the arrest, Detective Strohman placed his arms around Mr. Anderson in a bear hug, pinning Anderson’s arms at his side, and taking him down to the ground, falling on top of him with his arm pinned under Mr. Anderson. Det. Strohman sustained bruising to his wrist and arm from the fall.
During the exchange, Mr. Anderson spit the baggie containing the narcotics and a loose pill out of his mouth. Detective Vodarick then exited the car and assisted Detective Strohman in handcuffing Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson told the detectives that he was the purchaser of the drugs, not the seller, and that he had spit the baggie out of his mouth. A search of the area immediately around Mr. Anderson by Detective Boyd recovered the plastic baggie, which contained 3 gel capsules, and a fourth, partially chewed, pill. All evidence was submitted to the police department lab for analysis, which determined that the gel capsules contained heroin. Further analysis found Mr. Anderson’s DNA on the partially chewed capsule.
While Mr. Anderson was sitting on the ground in handcuffs, several of his family members walked over to the scene, including his mother, sister, son, and daughter. The family members and other bystanders were told by the detectives to step back from the scene while they completed the arrest and searched the area. At one point, Mr. Anderson told his mother to leave. At this point, Mr. Anderson’s physical condition and demeanor began to change. He stopped talking, his breathing became shallow and he started to slump over.
One of the detectives nudged or pushed Mr. Anderson with his foot, telling him to sit up, but Mr. Anderson was unresponsive. The Detective then propped up Mr. Anderson with his knee in his back. Believing that Mr. Anderson had ingested an overdose of narcotics, Detective Boyd called for an ambulance, and the detectives told family members to go across the street to the firehouse on North Montford and have the medics come. Within a matter of minutes, both the fire department medics and an ambulance arrived.
Mr. Anderson was unconscious when they arrived, and based on his condition and information presented to them by the officers regarding the narcotics seizure, the paramedics believed he was suffering from a possible drug overdose. As a result, in addition to performing basic life support and oxygen, they also administered the drug Narcan, which is a drug inhibitor designed to revive individuals who may have overdosed on narcotics. Mr. Anderson’s condition immediately improved, and he became alert and conscious, although complaining of shortness of breath. Mr. Anderson was then transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital by ambulance where his condition worsened in the emergency room area. He died a few minutes later.
An autopsy revealed that Mr. Anderson died from the blunt force when he fell to the ground, causing his spleen to rupture, which resulted in bleeding into his stomach. Further examination revealed that Mr. Anderson had a preexisting condition; specifically, an enlarged spleen that was due to excessive amounts of blood in the spleen caused by a diseased liver, which was not processing blood from the spleen to the liver efficiently. The diseased liver also limited Mr. Anderson’s ability to clot blood efficiently if he was bleeding, as he was here. As a result, he bled more than normal. It was this internal bleeding that ultimately caused Mr. Anderson’s death. I would also note that there was no evidence of any bruising on Mr. Anderson from the force of any kicks or nudges by the officers when they were attempting to get Mr. Anderson to sit up. Instead, the autopsy only revealed a single exterior bruise caused by the fall.
In making the determination whether the force used by Detective Strohman to effectuate the arrest of Mr. Anderson was so excessive as to warrant criminal prosecution, we look to the objective reasonableness of the Detective’s actions. In other words, we are not governed by 20/20 hindsight, but from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and the calculus of what constitutes reasonable use of force includes consideration of the split-second judgments officers are often required to make in sometimes tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving situations when confronting criminal suspects who may possess illegal contraband or a weapon.
Using these legal standards as our guide, we have concluded that Detective Strohman did not act with the intent to cause death or serious physical injury to Mr. Anderson. Nor did he act in a grossly negligent manner that created a high degree of risk to, and reckless disregard for, human life. Instead, the evidence reveals that Detective Strohman utilized an appropriate level of force, consistent with BPD training and use of force protocols, which provide for use of increasing degrees of force depending upon the situation and levels of resistance by the suspect, in order to effectuate the arrest of Mr. Anderson and to ensure that he did not ingest the narcotics that were observed in his possession by the detectives.
Consistent with BPD use of force training protocols and guidelines, which we observed demonstrated at BPD’s E & T facility, Detective Strohman utilized physical manipulation (i.e., the takedown) in order to respond to Mr. Anderson’s active resistance to Detective Strohman’s commands and Mr. Anderson’s attempts to ingest the contraband — an encounter that ended in a matter of seconds.
Our investigation is now completed. I would note that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has initiated its own investigation of this matter. Both BPD and our office have met with representatives of the Civil Rights Division and turned over to them our complete investigative file. We also have told the Civil Rights Division that the BPD and the SAO will continue to cooperate fully with them while they complete their own independent investigation to determine whether Mr. Anderson was subjected to an unreasonable seizure through the use of excessive force that would warrant further action by their office.
All three officers are still subject to review by BPD’s IID division to determine whether any administrative action is warranted. As I have demonstrated throughout my tenure as State’s Attorney, I am committed to prosecuting any officer who violates the law and dishonors the badge. In this case, however, the evidence does not establish any violation of the criminal laws, which is the statutory framework we operate under.