Growing up in Reading, Pennsylvania, Christopher Nguyen said, he decided in high school to become a police officer.
Nguyen said he developed a passion — one that continues to this day. He later attended Shippensburg University, where he majored in criminal justice and minored in international studies. That’s when he got the opportunity to apply to work for the Baltimore Police Department, at which he started in late 2018.
On Aug. 12, 2020, Nguyen testified in Baltimore Circuit Court, he was dispatched to a call about two men fighting inside a vehicle on Kolb Avenue near Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore. Wayne Brown was lying face down on the sidewalk, bleeding and unresponsive.
Nguyen walked over to check on him and called for a medic. Before emergency medical services arrived, Nguyen started speaking with Kenneth Somers, who was sitting nearby in a pickup. Somers reported that he beat up Brown, alleging that the man had stolen his car.
As Nguyen continued to ask him questions and take notes, Somers walked up to Brown, leaned down and unleashed taunts including, “I want you to look at me real quick, so you can remember me.” Somers then kicked Brown one time in the face, according to body camera video.
“In hindsight, with my experience that I have now, I would’ve kept him detained,” Nguyen testified in the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse, adding that he experienced tunnel vision. “But at that time, I was not thinking. I was feeling overwhelmed. I was by myself.”
Nguyen said he neither knew that Somers was going to kick Brown nor wanted that to happen. But the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office alleged that Nguyen’s inaction created a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury and amounted to a crime.
Following a two-day bench trial, Circuit Judge Kendra Y. Ausby on Tuesday agreed, convicting Nguyen, 27, of Hanover, of reckless endangerment. She acquitted him of misconduct in office.
Although she found him to be “overall credible” on the witness stand, Ausby said Nguyen “couched his testimony to his benefit.” She rejected the notion that he had experienced tunnel vision.
Instead, Nguyen, she said, appeared to accept the story about the stolen car as fact and seemed all right with street justice. At one point, Nguyen told Somers on body camera video, “You did what you had to do to get your car back.”
Nguyen, she said, did nothing when Somers leaned over and taunted Brown. Ausby said that was not reasonable for a police officer, regardless of whether it had been his or her first day or 100,000th day on the job.
“He knew that Mr. Somers had absolutely no respect for Mr. Brown or Mr. Brown’s life,” said Ausby, noting that Somers called Brown a racial slur, referred to him as a worthless piece of trash and appeared to still be angry. “The defendant knew all of these things. And he disregarded it.”
“He was keenly aware that not keeping them separated would cause a risk, a great risk, of death or serious bodily injury,” she later added.
Though Nguyen accepted the “overall sense of vigilante justice,” Ausby said, she did not believe that he condoned the kick. That’s why she acquitted him of misconduct in office.
In his closing argument, Assistant State’s Attorney Ernest Reitz said Nguyen was derelict in his duty to protect and serve and then lied about what happened in his police report to cover up his misdeeds.
That’s because Nguyen wrote that Somers followed him and then kicked Brown. Nguyen testified that, based on his notes and memory, that’s what he truly believed had happened.
Nguyen pushed Somers back. Next, Officer Franklin Phipps, who’d arrived as backup, pulled out his Taser, shouted orders at Somers and directed Nguyen to handcuff him, body camera video shows.
“I didn’t hit him,” Somers remarked. “I kicked him.”
Somers, 41, of Dundalk, stated on camera that he “still had all them juices flowing” and realized that he was “deadass wrong.” He was found guilty earlier this year of first-degree assault and reckless endangerment and sentenced to seven years in prison, according to online court records.
Reitz argued that the failure to intervene created a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury. No reasonable police officer — regardless of experience — would’ve allowed a suspect in an assault to access a victim lying on the ground, he said.
Somers, Reitz said, admitted to committing the attack and, at one point, used the N-word to refer to Brown. Meanwhile, Nguyen allowed Somers to roam free and appeared to empathize with him, Reitz said.
“There was an overwhelming sense of depravity that was demonstrated consistently by Officer Nguyen on the scene,” Reitz said.
At one point in his body camera video, Nguyen asked Somers whether he’d ever thought about professional fighting.
Meanwhile, Chaz Ball, Nguyen’s attorney, asked the judge not to evaluate the case with 20/20 hindsight.
Ball contended that the state was trying to “incredibly broaden” the scope of reckless endangerment to cover the actions of third parties. Police officers, he said, are now expected to slow down and gather information instead of immediately resorting to taking people to the ground and arresting them.
Nguyen, he said, was trying to conduct an investigation. He was experiencing tunnel vision and did not perceive the threat.
“There’s no corrupt motive in his mind,” Ball said. “There’s no depravity in his mind.”
If Nguyen knew what he knows now, he would’ve acted different, Ball said. He said his client was trying to do his job.
In a statement, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby credited the office’s Public Trust and Integrity Unit for “holding Officer Nguyen accountable for his failure to protect the victim in this case.”
“The citizens of Baltimore deserve to feel protected in the presence of a police officer and not fearful that they will stand idly by while an unrestrained suspect attacks them,” she said.
Brown filed a lawsuit earlier this year in Baltimore Circuit Court against Nguyen, Phipps and Somers.
In an interview, Brian Bennett, Brown’s attorney, said his client was “extremely injured in this incident” and has “still not recovered in any way, shape or form.”
Bennett said Brown spent several months in the hospital and at a rehabilitation facility in the University of Maryland Medical System.
Brown, he said, purchased the vehicle from Somers.
“My client is very happy that the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office was able to successfully prosecute this case,” Bennett said. “It’s a matter of much concern to both Wayne Brown and his mother.”
Nguyen is suspended with pay and earned $71,290.23 in fiscal year 2021, according to the city’s salary database. He’s free on his own recognizance and is set to appear back in court for sentencing on Oct. 27.
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