Since Freddie Gray passed away while in police custody, the mystery shrouding the circumstances of his death has started to wane. Newly appointed attorney general, Loretta Lynch, announced on May 8, 2015 that the Department of Justice (DOJ) officially opened a federal probe in an attempt to clarify exactly what caused the spinal injury that killed Gray.
The most disturbing part of this whole story is that, despite Gray’s extensive rap sheet, he was arrested without having broken a law. Let it be known that running in the opposite direction of police officers is not evidence of a crime and thus not grounds for any arrest or detention. Having a criminal record is also not, in itself, a crime. Even when one combines these two things and adds his pocketknife into the mix, Freddie Gray still did not break a law that day. Even more, Freddie Gray, like Michael Brown and Tamir Rice before him, became a symbol of a greater national problem the moment he was killed, a martyr with real purpose.
Freddie Gray isn’t the only one in this story that had a bad reputation with the letter of the law. No, in fact, the Baltimore PD itself has begun to undergo reforms to assess the department’s “policies, training and operations as they relate to use of force and interactions with citizens.”
The Baltimore Sun conducted its own investigation, Undue Force, in September of 2014, shortly after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of officer Darren Wilson. The investigation explains, amongst dozens of others, the story of Jerriel Lyles, who was assaulted without cause by police officers of the BPD. Lyles was buying food at P&J Carryout when he was approached by several men in baggy clothes and hoodies. Lyles reportedly thought he was being robbed at first, but the men turned out to be police officers. They proceeded to frisk him and demanded he sit on the greasy floor, to which he refused.
‘The officer hit me so hard it felt like his radio was in his hand,” Lyles testified about the 2009 incident, after suing Detective David Greene. ‘The blow was so heavy. My eyes swelled up. Blood was dripping down my nose and out my eye,’” the report quoted Lyles as saying.
When the case was heard in court, the officer offered a different explanation of the events. He was unable to explain why Lyles was stopped as he hadn’t committed a crime, and was ultimately unconvincing to the jury, who ruled in Lyles’s favor.
Lyles received a $200,000 settlement. The Sun’s investigation goes on to explain that Lyles’s case is part of what it describes as a “disturbing pattern”. An elderly woman and a pregnant woman are among those featured in the report who have been senselessly brutalized by BPD, underscoring the officers’ levels of discretion, or lack thereof. Though the report explains that about 100 cases have been won against BPD on the grounds of police brutality in the last four years, still, most cases go un-prosecuted or officers involved go completely uncharged.
Since 2011, wrongful arrests or excessive force charges against officers have cost the city of Baltimore about $5.7 million, plus an additional $5.8 million that was spent defending cops in court for incidents similar to the one involving Mr. Lyles. According to the investigation, “[The]… taxpayer funds paid out since January 2011 would cover the price of a state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds.”
Many people have irresponsibly thrown out the statistic that white people are, overall, arrested at a higher rate than black men in the US. According to this table from the FBI, 28.1% of total arrests are of black people; and black people only make up 13.2% of the overall US population, according to the US Census Bureau. The significance of these figures should not need to be further explained. An article in the Washington Post might lend a hand to those struggling to see the racism intrinsic to the US justice system, which is represented by those figures. The Post spoke to the Brookings Institute’s Jonathan Rockwell who was quoted as saying the following:
The article goes on to explain that though whites have been found to use drugs at the same rate as blacks, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for drug possession. Additionally, “… whites are actually more likely to sell drugs,” the article states. The explanation is fascinating. The author of the piece, Christopher Ingraham explained:
“Arrest data show a striking trend: arrests of blacks have fallen for violent and property crimes, but soared for drug related crimes. As of 2011, drug crimes comprised 14 percent of all arrests and a miscellaneous category that includes ‘drug paraphernalia’ possession comprised an additional 31 percent of all arrests. Just 6 percent and 14 percent of arrests were for violent and property crimes, respectively.”
“This partly reflects racial differences in the drug markets in black and white communities. In poor black neighborhoods, drugs tend to be sold outdoors, in the open. In white neighborhoods, by contrast, drug transactions typically happen indoors, often between friends and acquaintances. If you sell drugs outside, you’re much more likely to get caught.”
What’s more troubling, is that many people still fail to see the lack of professionalism displayed by the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest. Even Baltimore’s Police Commissioner, Anthony Batts, has not been shy in criticizing the conduct of his officers that were involved in the events leading to Gray’s death:
“We know he was not buckled in the transport wagon, as he should’ve been. No excuses for that, period,” he said. “We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.”
The misconduct within the cruiser that housed Gray has sparked suspicions that the injuries he sustained were caused by what’s called a “rough ride,” in which police officers handcuff a suspect in the back seat of their cruiser, absent of handcuffs, and drive recklessly to toss the suspect around and likely cause injury. According to the Atlantic, rough rides don’t seem to be a widespread phenomena, but it occurs in enough documented cases that cause injury that it is a problem in police culture. Unofficial fixtures of police culture, such as rough rides, make it simultaneously very easy to get away with battering suspects and difficult to retrieve reliable data on how often this occurs so as to take pragmatic steps against it.
Emerging details about the officers involved have peppered the media landscape as the investigation grinds on, particularly, the conduct of BPD’s Lieutenant Brian Rice. An article by the Guardian revealed that he has a history of prejudicial arrests in the past.
Apparently, Rice went on a late night tirade in March explaining, “heads will roll” if officers under his command did not arrest a man, his ex-girlfriend’s husband, based on a personal dispute, according to a police report provided by the Guardian.
Baltimore PD’s spokespeople have declined to answer whether any disciplinary action was taken against Rice after the revelation of his personal biases. Rice’s past misconduct is relevant because he was the executor of Gray’s arrest; he initiated the pursuit that led to Gray’s arrest and, eventually, to his death. Further investigations are trying to determine whether there was any personal connection between Gray and Rice and, if so, if it played a role in Gray’s arrest and subsequent treatment.
Unfortunately, the media’s obsession with the riots that followed a full week of peaceful protests overshadowed the reason the protests took place to begin with; which is Gray’s death and the greater problem it symbolizes.
Updates concerning the investigations into Baltimore’s legal authorities have been cast into media obscurity because major networks found a more convenient story amongst the looting and vandalism that was the result of both frustrated protesters with legitimate social grievances feeling they had no other options to get the world’s attention and force change in their communities.
While many argue that the eruption of violence harms the protestors central message, others argue that the situation is justified. My father repeatedly used to say that, “You’re not always responsible for the way you feel, but you are always responsible for the way you behave.” Perhaps both sides of the argument can take a lesson from my father and work towards better solutions for the people of Baltimore and around the country.
Andrew Rogers is a freelance writer and political commentator from Kent, Ohio who focuses on religion and social unrest. You can email Andrew here.
(Image: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr / Creative Commons)