How did Freddie Gray’s neck get broken while he was in police custody?
That’s the painful question the city of Baltimore is grappling with after the 25-year-old Gray died yesterday morning, a week after he was arrested by Baltimore police under mysterious circumstances and put into a police van—where his family members and the family’s attorney contend that he was beaten.
“What we know is that while in police custody for committing no crime, for which they had no justification for making an arrest except that there was a Black man running, his spine was virtually severed, 80 percent severed in the neck area, and he died of those injuries,” family attorney Billy Murphy told reporters.
With an angry, grieving family and outraged protesters on the streets of Baltimore, the case has gotten the full attention of Baltimore city officials eager to quell the growing dissension. Gray was yet another Black man to die at the hands of police in what feels like the midst of a national epidemic of explosive cases. Officials haven’t yet released the races of the four officers involved in Gray’s arrest. While the city of Baltimore is just 26 percent white, the Baltimore police force is 46 percent white. But even if the officers turn out to be Black, it certainly will not lessen the anger and frustration of Gray’s families or the protesters.
Gray’s family called on the US Justice Department and the FBI to conduct the investigation into Gray’s death, believing the Baltimore police department can’t be trusted to investigate itself.
“The officers who did this need to be arrested now, locked in jail and charged with murder,” Gray’s older sister, Carolina, told the Guardian. “And this all needs to be investigated by separate police. How can Baltimore police look into their own?”
“The police are just going to look out for each other,” said Robert Darden, Gray’s uncle. “They need to get the federal government to investigate.”
At a press conference yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said city authorities had launched an investigation to find out what happened.
“I will ensure we will hold the right people accountable,” she said.
The four officers involved in Gray’s arrest have also been placed on administrative leave during the investigation.
Murphy, the family attorney—a legendary figure in Baltimore legal circles who played himself on the fictional HBO series The Wire, representing state senator Clay Davis—questioned the timeline released by the police.
This was how the police described the incident:
Officers spotted Gray at 8:39 a.m. on April 12 along a busy street northwest of downtown. As they approached, Gray ran. They caught him a minute later about two blocks away. Officers called for a van at 8:42 a.m. At 8:54 a.m. and about a block from the arrest site, the van left for the Western District station “after stopping to place additional restraints on the suspect. Video evidence indicates the suspect is conscious and speaking at this time,” the timeline said.
Ten minutes later, at 9:24 a.m., police ask for paramedics to come to the station.
But Murphy yesterday said he believes Gray was in police custody for at least an hour after he was arrested. In addition, Murphy said he interviewed witnesses who said the police stopped the van with Gray inside at least one time between the time the Gray was arrested and when he arrived at the police station.
“Witnesses say police stopped the vehicle and took him out of the vehicle for reasons that are unknown to us and put him back in the vehicle,” Murphy told the media. “Now we hear from reliable sources that they may have stopped two or three more times and taken the man out of the vehicle or dealt with the man in some kind of way in the vehicle before taking him to the Western District.”
Police have not released any video of the incident, including civilian video that has been shown on local news outlets.
But a key question remains unanswered: Why did the officers approach Gray to begin with?
Gray had compiled several drug convictions in his 25 years and had a trial scheduled for May 21 on new drug charges stemming from an arrest in December.
“We had officers in a high-crime area known to have high narcotic incidents,” Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez told reporters. “The officers believe that Mr. Gray was immediately involved or recently involved in criminal activity and decided to make contact.”
But Rodriguez acknowledged that the reason for the arrest remain “a bit vague.”
Rodriguez said a criminal investigation was underway.
“It’s a two-part investigation. One is a criminal case, for Mr. Gray and also the officers. We always have that component in there to determine whether there is criminal culpability,” Rodriguez said.
But Murphy said he is conducting his own investigation. He indicated he has already interviewed 11 witnesses and has asked the police department for video footage and other material.
Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the police department, an independent review board and the Baltimore prosecutor’s office will investigate the case.
“If someone has surrendered and you’ve put the handcuffs on him, what is the point of you beating them?” said Gray’s sister, Carolina, according to the Guardian. “We don’t have any idea why they were chasing him.”
“The police have been killing these young people. When he saw the police, he ran,” explained the uncle, Darden. “And when he ran and the police caught him, they were mad he ran from them. And they beat him up.”
“Everybody loved him,” Darden told the Guardian. “He had a lot of friends.”
Carolina described her brother as friendly and said he “would keep you laughing.”
“He liked to joke, he liked to play, he’d help anyone,” she said. “Anything he had, he was willing to give to anyone to help them.”
The Baltimore fraternal order of police released a statement asking the public that there be “no rush to judgement.”
But the police union said it welcomed the opening of the inquiry.
“We take this incident very seriously and will work with all involved parties in order to assist wherever we are able,” the union said.
Protesters vowed to continue demonstrations today outside the police station.
“Too many people are being killed by these police officers,” Darden said.
“Something is wrong.” Carolina said. “They’re killing us black people. They should be here to protect us, but they’re not protecting us – they’re beating us.”