A city police instructor was sentenced Tuesday to two months in jail for shooting a trainee during exercises, an incident that left a man critically wounded and, in the words of a prosecutor, "brought dishonor onto the Baltimore Police Department."
William S. Kern was convicted of reckless endangerment in the Feb. 12 shooting at the Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, a shuttered state facility for people with developmental disabilities. The 19-year veteran testified that he accidentally grabbed a live weapon instead of a training gun.
Though it's rare for an officer to serve jail time for an on-duty incident, Baltimore County prosecutors said the case was unique because of the level of carelessness displayed by Kern. He shot University of Maryland police recruit Raymond Gray in the head, blinding him in one eye and hospitalizing him for months.
Gray's family members said they believe the sentence — 18 months with all but 60 days suspended — was too lenient. "We feel like he just got off scot-free," said a woman who said she was Gray's aunt but declined to give her name as she left the courtroom.
The shooting resulted in the suspension of six academy officials and prompted Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts to briefly suspend training. The department acknowledged it did not have permission to use the facility, and has since tightened its training policies and oversight.
Kern is suspended with pay and an internal investigation is ongoing, police said in a statement Tuesday night.
"Today's sentencing brings to a close this painful chapter in our history. While the Gray family continues to heal, we remain committed to ensuring that the training environment is as safe as it can be for our officers and trainees," the statement said.
Some of Kern's family members were in tears as sheriff's deputies led him away. He will serve his term at the Baltimore County Detention Center.
"I'm sorry for the grief that I caused," Kern said at the sentencing hearing. "This is something that I am going to live with for the rest of my life."
Defense attorney Shaun F. Owens argued for his release. He said his client was dedicated to his job and a year away from earning his pension. Kern's likely dismissal would be punishment enough, Owens said. Kern was paid just under $69,000 in the 2013 fiscal year, according to city records.
"He has given his life to the community," Owens said in court. "I'm not sure how much more punishment is actually appropriate."
Prosecutors said Kern never should have been carrying a real weapon during the training exercise, in which trainees were using "simunitions" weapons that shoot paintballs. They said Kern showed no regard for safety and that he mistakenly pulled the live weapon earlier on the day of the shooting.
Kern had testified that he brought his service weapon for the security of the trainers and recruits. He said he thought he was holding a training pistol when he fired through a window where a group of recruits had been watching during training exercises. The idea was to show how dangerous it can be to linger near doors, windows and hallways.
Gray, of Baltimore, still has a bullet lodged in his brain. He remains in therapeutic treatment at an out-of-state facility, where his family expects to join him for Christmas. They did not speak during the hearing.
A. Dwight Pettit, who is representing Gray's family in a civil lawsuit over the shooting, said they are disappointed but not surprised by the sentence.
"You have to realize that police officers are still given a lot of favoritism by both the courts and the justice apparatus," he said. That's just the fact of life."
The family's federal suit, which names Kern and several police officials, seeks $470 million in damages.
Defense attorney Andrew I. Alperstein, who has represented police officers in the past and has served as a county prosecutor, said the judge had a difficult decision to make.
"The defendant didn't intend to injure someone else," Alperstein said. "He's a police officer who dedicated his life to helping other people, to protect our community and keep us safe."
But he said the judge also had to consider the victim's family.
Deputy State's Attorney John Cox said the circumstances are unlike any the court is likely to see again.
He asked the judge to consider Kern's "outrageous activity" — the fact that a veteran training instructor knowingly carried a live weapon into a training. "To try to justify [that] as some sort of concern for safety is simply outrageous," Cox said.
Kern has said he felt the weapon was necessary because the abandoned facility was not secure.
Although Kern didn't intend to cause harm, Cox said, he should be punished for his disregard for safety.
Jurors did not find Kern guilty of the more serious charge of second-degree assault, which would have carried a possible 10-year sentence.
Copyright 2013 - The Baltimore Sun
McClatchy-Tribune News Service