A defense attorney cautioned Tuesday against a "rush to judgment" as a Baltimore police officer is investigated for his conduct following a 13-year-old girl's fatal shooting.
Officer John A. Ward was suspended by the agency more than a week ago after involuntary manslaughter charges were filed against two juveniles in the accidental shooting of Monae Turnage. Her body was found under trash bags in an East Baltimore backyard on March 4.
Attorney Christie Needleman, who confirmed that she is representing Ward, said there are "two sides to every story" but declined to comment further as the investigation continues.
"It's not the appropriate time for [Ward] to tell his story," Needleman said. "I can simply say we're cooperating fully with the investigation and will continue to do so."
Ward's suspension came swiftly, but police have not publicly discussed the case as the investigation moves into a second week. Ward is dating a relative of one of the juveniles charged in the case, and law enforcement sources said the rifle suspected of being used to shoot Monae was found in his personal vehicle.
As the Police Department battles criticism over Ward's suspension and alleged role in the case, scandals that rocked the agency last year have also returned to the forefront. An officer convicted in a far-reaching kickback scandal was sentenced Tuesday to serve eight months in prison. And Detective Daniel Redd, who pleaded not guilty in a conspiracy case that included allegations he was dealing drugs from the Northwest District station, is due in court for a re-arraignment on Friday, records show.
Speaking after the sentencing of Officer David Reeping in the kickback scandal, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told The Baltimore Sun that the department is at an "all-time high" rate of suspensions and disciplinary actions.
Bealefeld, who was unable to provide statistics to back up that claim, said the trend reflects renewed diligence in pursuing misconduct — not a wave of corruption.
Speaking in general terms and not about Ward, he said that since his appointment five years ago, he has streamlined record-keeping and information-sharing within the department to better track officer infractions and leadership deficiencies. Some of those efforts were part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed before he was commissioner. And he hired new heads of training and internal investigations, both from outside the agency.
"The bottom line is we want to get that [bad] cop not just off the force, but held accountable in a criminal court as well," he said.
Ward, a four-year veteran of the agency, has not been charged with any crime. The 32-year-old is assigned to the Eastern District, and has patrolled areas including the Darley Park neighborhood where Monae was shot. In addition to the criminal probe, officials have also been reviewing Ward's disciplinary record.
Sources with knowledge of the investigation say detectives are focused on forensic evidence such as DNA, which could help investigators determine who handled the rifle.
Last week, hundreds attended a vigil and later a funeral to remember Monae, an eighth-grader at William C. March Middle School who read announcements over the loudspeaker, sang in the church choir and wanted to be a pediatrician.
Police have charged two boys, ages 12 and 13, with shooting Monae once in the chest while playing with the rifle. Investigators do not release the names of suspects charged with juvenile offenses.
Monae's relatives said one of the young suspects called her mother twice, once to say she was on her way home and again to ask if she had arrived. When Monae did not get home by 1 a.m. Sunday, the mother called police. Family members searched all day Sunday until Monae's 16-year-old brother found her body about 6 p.m.
The possible involvement of a city officer took the emotionally charged case to a new level, with family and elected officials expressing anger. On Monday, Ward had a formal suspension hearing and remains on administrative duties with pay. He has not commented publicly since the incident.
Among those expressing outrage was Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who told reporters that allegations of "police involvement" were "quite frankly disgusting."
Needleman said Tuesday that Rawlings-Blake's comments last week about the case were inappropriate.
"She was a defense attorney," Needleman said, referring to Rawlings-Blake's career with the public defender's office. "For her to say she's disgusted without prefacing it by saying 'if these allegations turn out to be true' – it's indicative of a rush to judgment."
Bealefeld told WJZ-TV on Monday that "there will be justice done" in the investigation of Monae's shooting and said detectives were proceeding carefully.
In his interview with the Sun, he did not discuss specific cases, including Ward's. But he said his broad efforts to address corruption in the department are sometimes unpopular with veterans of the force.
One such unpopular decision was the firing of Officer Salvatore Rivieri, who was videotaped in 2007 berating a young skateboarder at the Inner Harbor. In that case, Bealefeld overruled the decision of an internal trial board that recommended a five-day suspension.
"It's because we're increasing the accountability ... we're doing this to ourselves," he said, adding that he's enlisted some of the department's "best detectives to join the fight against police corruption knowing that they're going to find stuff."
"We're taking a hard line on discipline. We're not going to sweep this crap under the carpet, we're not going to put those jokers back to work. In the egregious cases, I'm going to fire people," Bealefeld said, adding that he's lost friends over some of his more controversial firings.
"Somebody's got to make the tough decisions," he said. "So I'm off their Christmas card lists — too bad."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times