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by Peter Moskos

April 21, 2015

The latest from Baltimore: Freddie Gray

Things are tense for police after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore Police custody.

I got no clue what happened. And I'm not going to say much till I do.

Keep in mind that Baltimore cops don't know what happened. But boy is this turning into quote a jackpot. A man died in police custody. Of a broken spine. Shit is hitting the fan. Six cops have been suspended (with pay).

It's slowly becoming national news (which is rare, when it comes to Baltimore police issues).

What we do know is that last Sunday morning police in the Western approached a group of people. A guy takes off running. Cops chase. Bike cops catch and arrest the guy, Freddie Gray for carrying a small knife. He gets put in a wagon. When Gray comes out of the wagon, he's seriously injured. He dies a week later.

From the New York Times:
“We have no evidence — physical, video or statements — of any use of force,” the deputy police commissioner, Jerry Rodriguez, said at the news conference. “He did suffer a very tragic injury to his spinal cord, which resulted in his death. What we don’t know, and what we need to get to, is how that injury occurred.”

Mr. Gray died Sunday, a week after his arrest. Witnesses captured parts of his encounter with the police on a cellphone video, in which screams can be heard as officers drag him into a transport van. An autopsy showed no wounds, except for the severed spinal cord, and the videos do not show the police acting forcefully.
On the way to the station, the van made at least two stops — including one in which Mr. Gray was taken out and placed in leg shackles after the driver complained he was “acting irate in the back,” Mr. Rodriguez said. After Mr. Gray arrived at Baltimore’s Western District station, police officers called medics, who took him to a hospital.
From the Sun:
"When he was placed inside that van, he was able to talk, he was upset," Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said. "And when Mr. Gray was taken out of the van, he could not talk, he could not breathe."

Police said they used no undue force when arresting Gray and can find no evidence from cellphone and city surveillance videos that officers brutalized Gray. They said an autopsy shows no indication that force was used.
But you need force from somewhere to be injured the way Gray was fatally injured. It is the responsibility of the wagonman (or woman) to make sure prisoners are safe and strapped down during transport.

It seems we have what started as a case of "felony running." Running from police is not a a crime. But fleeing from police does give police reasonable suspicion to stop (Illinois v. Wardlow, 2000). We used to make fun of cops who caught a "felony runner." That would happen when somebody takes off. You chase them! It's natural. You're a cop. You catch them... and then you realize they haven't actually committed a crime. You search (I mean frisk) them hoping to find something. Anything. But if you don't, you have to let them go. You can't even get them for loitering. They weren't loitering if they ran. Now I wouldn't chase people just for running. But I could have, if I liked running more.

The court vague said you need something other than running, but that something can be almost anything including "high crime area" or "drug corner." So I'm willing to say the approach, the chase, the stop, the frisk, the search, and the arrest were all legal.

I'm not saying this is the case here, but just FYI, it is not uncommon in Baltimore for corner boys to assign one person to be a "runner," just to get police off on a wild goose chase. That could be some young kid. It could be a junkie.

Police pull up. Somebody runs. You can chase him. Or you can let him run. Personally, I'd prefer to grab the second guy who tried to get away, figuring he would be more likely to have the stash or a gun.

Now in this case Gray did have a small knife, for which he was arrested. (If you make cops chase you, they can be damn sure they will, as they should, lock you up for any legal reason.)

Meanwhile angry people think the police and politicians are covering things up. And yet most police officers also don't trust the department and politicians. I wrote about race and police attitudes towards the discipline process back in 2008 in "Two Shades of Blue." The idea is that the powers-that-be -- and Baltimore has a black mayor and black police commissioner -- will punish police officers, guilty or not, to placate the public. I assume that among the six suspended officers are those who made the arrest (I don't know if that's true). And yet the department has already said that things were OK when they handed off the prisoner. I hope they enjoy their paid days off.

Personally, it's worth noting my surprise that these Western officers were doing any work at all on a Sunday morning. That is not generally how we rolled in the Eastern. Maybe it's just because it's spring. And you it's spring in Baltimore because the bikes are in bloom.


campbell said...

It seems we have what started as a case of "felony running." Running from police is not a a crime.

Depends, at least out here. If there's reasonable suspicion for the stop and there's been a verbal or visible signal for that person to stop then we have two different fleeing codes. A misdemeanor if you're on foot, and a felony version if you flee in a vehicle.

David Woycechowsky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Adam said...

That's interesting, Campbell. There's no fleeing-on-foot crime in Maryland or Baltimore specifically, but under Maryland law , a bicycle is technically a vehicle to which all the rules of the road apply. As a result, fleeing after being directed to stop would be a crime (an arrestable one, at that), and just about anything a normal bicycle-riding person would do on their bicycle would provide a police officer with cause to stop them.

A severed spinal cord with no other injuries is puzzling. It makes me believe there really wasn't a beat-down of any sort. More likely the police injured his spinal cord during the takedown, he said "I can't walk," and the cops thought it was the old "I need to go to the hospital" routine they see whenever somebody doesn't want to go to Central Booking. I won't pass judgment until more facts emerge, but the video sure looks bad. His legs appear completely limp as they're dragging him. Another possibility is that he was partially injured when they stuffed him in the wagon and the injury was exacerbated by something that happened in the wagon, such as a fall. It wouldn't surprise me if the wagon guy didn't buckle him and, in his weakened state, Gray fell over and wasn't able to use his hands to break his fall (because of the handcuffs). Sad story, possibly involving some serious negligence on the part of the officers, but I don't see evidence of anything more sinister than that.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Adam, you're saying the police threw Grey down so hard they broke his spine, tossed him in a van while ignoring his obvious injuries, and didn't bother to secure someone who couldn't break their own fall, resulting in a a guy who committed no crime save carrying a small knife dying in terrible pain. That's pretty damn sinister.

Peter Moskos said...

The cops were on the bikes. Not Gray.

Peter Moskos said...

Also, and I'm not certain, but I believe he was chased and stopped *for* running. Which police are allowed to do. But I am unaware of any reasonable suspicion before he fled. Again, I may be wrong.

That seems largely irrelevant. What matters is how he died.

Adam said...

Sorry, I got the details about the bikes confused.

Yes, Fuzzy Bastard, you're right. If it was obvious that Gray was seriously injured, then it was sinister to put him in the wagon and not call for help. But I'm guessing the officers believed, mistakenly (and perhaps very negligently), that he was just being difficult. One of my BPD friends tells me that *is* what they thought, and that Gray actually stepped up into the wagon on his own and sat himself down. I'm no doctor, so I shouldn't speculate about whether it's possible that his injury was less severe when they put him in the wagon than when they took him out. Apparently Gray's spine was sent to a specialist for further examination, so we'll know more eventually.

Peter Moskos said...

The mayor said, based on investigation and evidence, that whatever happened happened in the wagon. So unless there's some new evidence that he was seriously hurt by the arresting officers... but we know Gray's was basically OK when he went in the wagon. Or at least I think we do.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Hmm. PCM noted that cops get a little paranoid when the powers-that-be are black. That's plausible.

But it has a flip side. I live in Newark. I can't speak for police attitudes, but the locals are quite tolerant of a force that seems to behave worse than the NYPD across the river. (We're under a Federal monitor; the NYPD isn't, afaik.) And the Newark police force is far whiter, proportionately to the population, than the NYPD. But the Newark power structure is indubitably black, although there is an emerging Latino-Portuguese-yuppie bloc.

I think that, often, "police brutality" is an inarticulate way of saying "colonialism." At least, that's how I view Ferguson.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

The mayor has said that, but it's very unclear how much investigation went into the mayor's statement. We know that Grey could talk when placed in the van, but that doesn't prove much. Opinion seems divided about whether he could walk. It seems like a major overstatement to say we "know" that Gray was OK when placed in the van.

According to ABC News: "The driver then believed Gray was acting "irate" in the back, police said. Police stopped the vehicle and placed him in leg irons. The van driver then asked for an additional unit to check on Gray, according to police."

So it's possible that he was not fatally injured by the arresting officers, but it was the police who placed him in leg irons that beat him to death. It is also possible that he was not secured after being cuffed, in which case the police have drastically misunderstood what "in custody" means. It's also possible that the arresting officers seriously injured him, and the injuries were exacerbated by what happened in the van.

One thing this all makes clear is that the police habit of assuming that anyone who says that they're hurt is lying has to end. Many---maybe most---people are, but the ones who aren't are about to die in your custody. And you are responsible to what happens to people in your custody. It may be time to make Las Vegas' policy nationwide: If someone says they're injured, you treat them as though they're injured, and if that means arrests happen a little more slowly, it's worth it.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Sorry, Millwaukee, not Vegas. It was discussed in the This American Life "Cops See It DIfferently: Part Two" episode.

Dave- IL said...

Adam: "A severed spinal cord with no other injuries is puzzling. It makes me believe there really wasn't a beat-down of any sort"

Not a prolonged beat-down. Based on the nature of the injury, my guess would be that someone rammed him head first into something solid (a compression type injury) or--less likely-- someone dropped a knee or boot across the back of his neck.

I'm not a forensic pathologist, but I've never heard of a spontaneous spinal fracture. Time to come clean, BPD. And time to end the drug war, which encourages these kind of ridiculous encounters. Black dude runs, cop feels he must give chase. Why? Cuz that's what they do on "Cops." Cuz that's the way we've always done things 'round here. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Dave- IL, the term is "pathological fracture". Look it up. Is that what happened here? I dunno but seems too early to make a diagnosis from news accounts.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Comments are closed in that last thread, but you did ask "I don't think you can give me three cases of a "drop gun" that police have used in the past three decades. Hell, I don't know of one." So here are a few:


(much of this is still unproven, but " ...fired officers’ former unit Sergeant, Raul Iglesias... is serving a four-year federal prison sentence convicted of planting guns and drugs on suspects."

Not guns, but bullets planted: http://fox6now.com/2015/03/04/its-shocking-and-outrageous-former-kenosha-police-officer-admits-to-planting-evidence-in-murder-case/

In the Ramparts scandal, a number of officers were convicted for planting guns: http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/11/polic-n22.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nino_Durden and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Liddy

Under investigation, but already looking real bad: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/brooklyn-da-probe-nypd-cops-planting-guns-article-1.2079655

And of course, we all know of plenty of cases of planted drugs.
None of this shows that guns are *routinely* dropped. But it is certainly more than three drop guns in three decades.

Dave- IL said...

Anonymous: "Dave- IL, the term is 'pathological fracture'. Look it up. Is that what happened here? I dunno but seems too early to make a diagnosis from news accounts."

I did look it up. Did Mr. Gray--a twenty-five year old man in good health running from the police prior to his death--have Osteoporosis, tumors or other diseases that would make him vulnerable to a SUDDEN SEVERING OF HIS SPINAL CORD. Well, it is possible but highly unlikely.

It is simply more likely that Gray's head was shoved into a wall, or someone dropped onto his neck or upper back with very significant force. Or the wagon driver came to a sudden stop and he flew head first into the side of the wagon. However it happened, there was almost certainly trauma involved.

Your comment sounds like wishful thinking to me. If the situation was reversed and a cop died of this injury, would you be playing House M.D.? Where there is smoke, there is often fire. Cops know that, at least until one of "their own" is on the hot seat. But when a cop is a suspect, suddenly they go on exotic searches for reasonable doubt. Or, more likely, they go with the old stand bys: "I feared for my life," or "The suspect made a furtive gesture." And don't think that the public doesn't notice this phenomenon.

Peter Moskos said...

I'm no MD, but I do know that officers are responsible for the safety of their prisoners. End of story.

So even in the best-case scenario -- no use-of-force by the officers, no malign intent, no assault, no criminal action -- the officers (at least some of them) are still fucked. A man in police custody died from some kind of trauma.

Maybe it was just bad luck during transport. But even if the prisoner inflicted it on himself (unlikely, but you never know; crazier things have happened) it would *still* by the officer's responsibility. He is *your* prisoner.

[I'm reminded of one time I heard a cop in the Eastern jumped on his 13-year-old cuffed prisoner to cover him and protect him from random gunfire that just happened to erupt nearby (Baltimore being Baltimore). This story was so crazy I asked the kid for his account, just out of curiosity. He confirmed it all.]

I can imagine a scenario where no cop can or should go to jail for a criminal act. A cannot imagine a scenario where police are not held responsible for this man's death.

Anonymous said...

and now Friedersdorf

Dave- IL said...

Peter: "I'm no MD, but I do know that officers are responsible for the safety of their prisoners. End of story."

Absolutely. Let's say Gray went flying in the back of the wagon. Why did that happen? Did the wagon man slam on the brakes to avoid an accident (Or, conversely, did he do it to teach Gray a lesson)? If it was a tragic accident, does the department need to look at ways to better restrain prisoners in the future?

An accident in the wagon would be the least shady scenario, of course. But if this was the cause of the injury, BPD would have already fessed up. Then they would be talking about ensuring safety in the future and arranging a settlement for Gray's family.

The relative silence from BPD on the mechanism of injury strongly suggests that Gray's injuries were not some freak accident.

Peter Moskos said...

Man, Conner is just piling on. But indeed, what happens in Baltimore, including almost a homicide a day, tends to stay in Baltimore.

Dave, you're acting like the BPD knows what happened. I don't think they do. I'm not even certain that the police on scene know what happened.

Certainly any guilty officer is covering his ass. But beyond that, it's not so easy to figure out exactly what happened. We shall see.

campbell said...

Black dude runs, cop feels he must give chase. Why? Cuz that's what they do on "Cops." Cuz that's the way we've always done things 'round here. Sigh.

Because people run for a reason. Sometimes that reason is drugs. But other common reasons are has a gun, is a parole fugitive, has warrants, etc. A lot of great arrests come from recognizing who is reacting way too strongly to your presence.

Peter Moskos said...


Dave- IL said...

Campbell: "A lot of great arrests come from recognizing who is reacting way too strongly to your presence"

Of course many people run for a reason. Mr. Scott in SC ran because he had warrants for not paying child support. Others run because they have a dime bag or because they are engaged in other non-violent (read: consensual) but illegal activity. Here in Peoria I sometimes think running from police is a sport.

If we lived in a society where police were not so arrest and/or numbers oriented, I doubt most people would decide to run. In a society without a fetish for incarceration, it wouldn't be worth the trouble for the average person, even if they have committed some minor violation.

Campbell, with all due respect, a lot of people are going to react strongly to police presence these days. And as more of these high-profile cases occur, people may just run because they don't want to be the next dead black dude on CNN. Police can either deal with the changes that are coming in this country or they can lose the last bit of credibility they have in places like West Baltimore, or North St. Louis, or South Peoria, for that matter.

Dave- IL said...

PCM: "Dave, you're acting like the BPD knows what happened. I don't think they do. I'm not even certain that the police on scene know what happened"

Of course the brass doesn't know (and they may not want to know). If Gray's injury did not happen on the street--and BPD is saying it did not--then the bike cops and sector patrol may not know. Fair enough.

But what was up with Gray in the video. Was he passively resisting or were his legs already limp due to injury? If he was hurt in the wagon, was there any radio traffic that suggested a problem. BPD could have released radio traffic way before now. I think that would have helped. And if video was unavailable from public housing CCTV, what happened?

BPD needs to start filling these gaps. In light of their history, including a similar case about ten years ago (male arrested for public urination suffered spinal injury while in the back of a wagon), they need to be very forthcoming.

campbell said...

If the citizenry doesn't want the cops chasing people for drugs and nonpayment of child support then they should decriminalize those things. We're the cops, not the legislature. I and many other cops would in fact prefer to chase guys and know it probably wasn't just a drug bust.

Dave- IL said...

campbell: "I and many other cops would in fact prefer to chase guys and know it probably wasn't just a drug bust."

Ok, so lead the way. In many cases, police discretion could be used to shift priorities, as long as more than just a few officers are involved. For example, ending the practice of "consent searches"--I call them intimidation searches--would be a positive step.

Furthermore, you can't put all of the responsibility on citizens and legislators, Campbell. It is not uncommon for police and CO organizations to promote regressive measures and to attack the character of reformers. These pitiful attempts at promoting "job security" over true public safety must end if we are going to move policing ahead in the US.

campbell said...

You're wildly overestimating how effective law enforcement lobbying is, and how monolithic. Even the FOP is less than half the sworn officers in the country and most of their lobbying is labor issues.

Drugs are and have been illegal because the public along with pharma and alcohol companies wanted it that way. The polling numbers favoring legalizing something as mild as weed are a very recent phenomenon. In the 80's and 90's those polls were still coming back with 70 percent or higher as against legalization. The numbers for legalizing the hard stuff are laughably low, like often under ten percent. The good news is that it appears a solid majority favor treatment instead of incarceration so that should help along that front. Even my red state is already taking a long hard look at making possession of hard drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

But I just don't have the patience for people pointing the finger at the cops like they're just chasing black people willy nilly for no reason. the country has the same problem with regards to shootings. Everyone wants to wring their hands over the shooting numbers but noticeably absent from these conversations is everyone's complicity with a status quo where in places like NYC black people are 20 percent of the population but 80 percent of the robbery suspects. We didn't create this mess, we're just the ones you all send out to keep a lid on it.

campbell said...

I also get wary of discretion arguments where felonies are involved. I'll be the first to admit I don't go hunting dope. But if I come across it I charge it by the book because it's a felony. I'm a big fan of police discretion but there has to be limits. There has to be a point where we have to do the job regardless of personal leanings or beliefs.