Civil Liberties

Freddie Gray and Police Brutality in Baltimore


credit: Elliott Plack / Source / CC BY-SA

The proximate cause for the recent protests and violence in Baltimore is the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who was taken into custody in a police van on April 12.

When he entered the van, he was wearing handcuffs, and, reports say, he was able to talk and breathe. When he got out of the van, he couldn't do either. A week later he was dead. 

Gray's death after being taken into police custody was a tragedy, and it soon caused an uproar—not because it was particularly unusual, but because it wasn't.

Baltimore police have a history of physical brutality against the community that the force is supposed to be protecting. And the best place to go to understand that history is The Baltimore Sun, which has extensively documented both the city's record of law enforcement abuses and recent attempts by officials to investigate and reform the system. Here's a brief sample from the paper's archives. 

"Freddie Gray not the first to come out of Baltimore police van with serious injuries," a look at the practice of "rough riding" in police vans.

Gray is not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries….For some, such injuries have been inflicted by what is known as a "rough ride" — an "unsanctioned technique" in which police vans are driven to cause "injury or pain" to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit over Johnson's subsequent death.

(Police have admitted that Gray was not properly buckled in the van and that police "failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.")

"Undue Force," an extensive report from last year on the city's myriad cases of police brutality millions in public money city government has paid in legal settlements over abuse.

Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.

Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.

And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims — if charges were filed at all. In an incident that drew headlines recently, charges against a South Baltimore man were dropped after a video showed an officer repeatedly punching him — a beating that led the police commissioner to say he was "shocked."

Such beatings, in which the victims are most often African-Americans, carry a hefty cost. They can poison relationships between police and the community, limiting cooperation in the fight against crime, the mayor and police officials say. They also divert money in the city budget — the $5.7 million in 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. And that doesn't count the $5.8 million spent by the city on legal fees to defend these claims brought against police.

"Some Baltimore police officers face repeated misconduct lawsuits," a follow-up report looking at police who have cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars because of brutality lawsuits.

City lawyers did not understand the full extent of [officer] McSpadden's string of lawsuits until this July — after The Sun started asking questions about the officer. The Law Department was unaware that McSpadden was battling more than one lawsuit arising from incidents in 2012. And City Hall leaders learned about McSpadden's history just two days before the Board of Estimates agreed to settle another excessive-force lawsuit involving him. The total cost to taxpayers for the five lawsuits: more than $624,000.

The investigation, which focused on settlements and court judgments made since 2011, also found that multiple cases related to allegations of assault, false arrest and false imprisonment have not hindered some officers from becoming supervisors. In one case, for example, two officers were sued by a Baltimore man who won $175,000 in a jury trial, but they now have a higher rank — a problem that police blame in part on civil service rules.

The Baltimore Police Department, like others around the nation, has a policy designed to protect people under arrest. Part of its general orders state that officers are to "ensure the safety of the arrestee" when taking people into custody. But The Sun's investigation found that officers do not always follow policy in reporting the use of force, making it harder for agency leaders to detect problems.

"Federal review of Baltimore police brutality to be 'candid,' official says," a report on the city's response to the Sun's report.

A U.S. Department of Justice official promised Wednesday that his agency's months-long investigation of police brutality in Baltimore would be a "candid" assessment, and federal lawmakers threw their support behind the probe.

Ronald L. Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said he met with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts in Arkansas on Wednesday at a U.S. Conference of Mayors event focused on police misconduct. Davis said two staffers and up to four outside experts would contribute to the Baltimore probe, which could last six to eight months.

"Residents air complaints about police at Justice Department forum," a report from an overflowing townhall event in which 300 Baltimore residents came to discuss policing in the city, as part of the review of the city's policing.

About 300 people attended the town hall meeting at Coppin State University, which was part of a "collaborative review" between the Justice and city police departments into the agency's history of misconduct claims, brutality allegations and excessive force complaints, including those that have resulted in injury or death.

..Some complained not just about police but about the [federal] review, which they said was toothless because they view it as being too aligned with the Police Department. While the review was voluntarily requested by the city, Justice Department spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger said federal officials have the ability to refer significant violations or issues to its Civil Rights Division for possible sanctions.

For a more detailed overview of the city's troubling history of violent policing, read The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, who did a far more thorough, and disturbing, dive through the Sun's reporting on police misconduct.