On April 19, 2015, Freddie Gray died from injuries he sustained while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. As a result, the city erupted in riots and civil unrest. Citizens demanded action against the police though it was not clear how Gray received his injuries. With ambiguity still surrounding the incident, Baltimore prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, announced criminal charges against six police officers who came into contact with Gray. Mosby’s announcement came less than two weeks after the incident and before the police had finished their internal investigation.
Although the facts in this case are far from fully understood, Baltimore’s prosecutors arrived at a definitive conclusion regarding what happened and who was responsible. Mosby felt compelled to act. However, why the need to charge the police officers so quickly? All six of the officers were released after being charged; therefore, there was no discernable imminent public threat. Criminal charges based on minimal evidence could easily lead to an innocent person being convicted or a guilty person being exonerated. Both scenarios unduly harm those involved, though many people believe the message the criminal charges sent justifies the likely injustice forthcoming.
Events were set in motion when the police chased Gray for nothing more than running. Experience likely taught the officers that law abiding citizens do not run from the police. Regardless, running in the presence of police is not illegal. When the police finally caught Gray, they arrested him for having a switchblade-type knife on his person.
Legal questions abound. Could the officers legally frisk Gray? Was the knife they found on his person illegal or not? Did the officers believe the possession of the knife to be an infraction, or did they merely find a reason to arrest Gray and justify the chase? Did the police use excessive force in arresting Gray, or was the utilized level of force warranted by the situation?
Though Gray was likely injured prior to or during the hand-cuffing process, the criminal charges against the six police officers focused on the transportation phase of Gray’s arrest. When the police transported Gray, he was not placed in a seat belt, which was against department policy. However, the policy mandating seat belts while transporting prisoners only took effect days before Gray was arrested. Prior to this change, seat belt use was discretionary. The officer who failed to buckle Gray may have technically violated policy, but it appears his actions were consistent with common practice within the department.
The six police officers were charged with numerous crimes, which included false imprisonment and second-degree murder. Overall, the criminal charges primarily addressed four police actions or failures to act: legality of the arrest, failure to place Gray into a seat belt, failure to request medical assistance in a timely manner, and intentionally swerving the van to injure Gray.
The state’s attorney criminally charging police officers with false imprisonment for what was at worst a mistake by the arresting officers will certainly have ramifications beyond this case. Adding to the State’s questionable position, the legality of the arrest may hold up in court.
Failure to seat belt a prisoner was not against department policy until April 3, only nine days before Gray’s arrest on April 12. Therefore, if the incident happened previously, the failure to seat belt Gray would not have been a violation of department policy, but now carries with it criminal charges.
On April 3, departmental policy also changed with regard to seeking medical attention for prisoners. It changed from “when necessary” to “when requested [by prisoner].” Under the previous policy, the determination of when to seek medical attention for a prisoner was a subjective standard. Thus, the failure to summon medical attention in a timely manner was also subjective. The officers clearly violated the new policy, even though it was only days old, and they may have been unaware of the policy change.
Forty-four minutes elapsed between Gray’s arrest and when the police determined he needed medical attention. During the 44 minutes Gray was in the transport van, the police checked on him twice. Gray repeatedly requested medical assistance, but his pleas were ignored. Though the full autopsy has not been released, Gray’s reported injuries were severe and numerous. One or more of the police officers should have recognized the severity of Gray’s medical condition and acted accordingly. That did not happen. However, was their failure to act deliberate and criminal or simply poor judgment?
There has been speculation that police officers intentionally kept Gray from being placed in a seat belt in order to give him a “rough ride,” in which the driver intentionally slams on the brakes, makes sharp turns, and commits other aggressive maneuvers in an effort to cause pain to the prisoner as he bounces around in the van. If this occurred, criminal charges are certainly warranted. However, even under this scenario, it is hard to imagine the police officer who was driving believed his actions could cause grave bodily harm and possibly death, thus justifying the second degree murder charge.
Within the transportation portion of Gray’s arrest, only the intentional slamming of him into the sides of the van by the driver would fall clearly into the criminal realm. The other actions were procedural errors, poor judgment, and questionable departmental practices. Regardless, when an officer arrests someone he (or she) is responsible for the subject’s safety. The officers had an obligation to ensure Gray’s safety and well-being, which they failed to do.
The details regarding how Gray incurred fatal injuries are unknown. Gray’s death may have been the result of poorly constructed and implemented police policies, or it may have been the result of one or more police officers intending to harm him. Unfortunately, leveling criminal charges where there is a lack of transparency into the facts compounded the tragedy of Gray’s death. Now the State has to rely on a jury convicting officers based on emotion and hyperbole because the current evidence fails to meet the standard of proof required in a criminal case. There should be consequences for the police officers involved in Gray’s arrest and transport, but filing criminal charges before the facts have been fully gathered, failed to further justice.
*This post was written by John W. Taylor, Author of Isolated Incident: Investigating the Death of Nancy Cooper and Umbrella of Suspicion: Investigating the Death of JonBenet Ramsey. To read more about John, visit his website at TrueCrimeWriting.com.