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Baltimore police, seat belts and Freddie Gray

Is it possible that six Baltimore officers missed three years of messages about seat belts in transport vans?

When the news first broke that the officers who transported Freddie Gray from the site of his arrest to the Western District station had failed to secure him in the police van in spite of a department policy requiring it, the head of the city's police union had a ready excuse. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, told the Washington Post that the policy had only taken effect nine days before Gray's arrest and had been emailed to officers as part of a package of directives six days after that. Mr. Ryan said many officers hadn't read the new policies, assuming they merely represented minor changes to the existing rules.

But reporting on Sunday by The Sun's Luke Broadwater shows there's much more to the story than that. Baltimore has a long history of paying out large settlements and judgments in cases when detainees were injured in the back of police vans, and that fact was apparently not lost on the department's top commanders. According to documents obtained through the Maryland Public Information act, cutting down on such injuries through the use of seat belts has been a departmental priority since 2012 when then-Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III became concerned about the issue. The documents Mr. Broadwater obtained show that the department stressed the need to seat belt detainees in communications with commanders, conducted training on the issue and performed spot checks for compliance — all well before Gray's fateful arrest.

Indeed, if officers thought the April 3, 2015 policy directive on detainee transport policy was a minor revision to what they already knew, as Mr. Ryan suggested, they were right. The directive said officers "shall ensure the safety of a detainee when a person is taken into custody, including obtaining medical treatment when necessary, at the nearest emergency medical facility" and that "all passengers, regardless of age and seat location, shall be restrained by seat belts or other authorized restraining devices." Commanders had been saying much the same thing for nearly three years.

The push for seat belts wasn't just a one-time memo from a former commissioner; Mr. Bealefeld's successor, Anthony W. Batts, also took up the issue. In February 2014, Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez ordered a top Internal Affairs commander to publicize the seat belt policy at roll calls and said the department would be auditing officers' compliance.

What's more, all the attention to seat belt use appears to have had some effect. When Mr. Bealefeld first ordered an audit, in May 2012, officials checked 18 vehicles transporting 34 passengers, none of whom were belted. Two years later, under the Batts administration, an audit found 20 of 22 detainees wearing seat belts. A follow-up audit in September found 17 of 17 detainees in seat belts.

According to prosecutors' version of events, during the 45 minutes between the time Freddie Gray was arrested and when he was taken, unresponsive and in cardiac arrest, from the back of the van, all six officers who are charged in connection with his death were aware that he had not been seat belted in the van — either because they put him there or because they came to check on him. During that time, they collectively had at least four opportunities to rectify the apparent violation of departmental policy.

It's premature to say what impact the department's years-long effort to make seat belt use in transport vans universal will have in the officers' trials. Even if we assume prosecutors can prove in court that the officers knowingly violated departmental policy — and we're a long way from that — it doesn't necessarily follow that they are guilty of the crimes with which they have been charged.

What it does, though, is deepen the mystery of how so large a group of officers could uniformly treat a suspect with such evident disregard. The group included a lieutenant and a sergeant, and all six have been on the force since at least 2012. If it was the norm within the department to transport detainees without seat belts, that would be one thing, but it wasn't. Given the evident culture shift within the department during the last few years — going from 0 for 34 on seat belt use in a 2012 audit to 17 for 17 in 2014 — it is difficult to imagine that none of the six had been made aware of the importance of properly securing detainees for their safety, if indeed anyone would need to be told that riding unsecured in the back of a van is unsafe. If there is any kind of explanation for such conduct beyond callous indifference, we'd love to hear it.

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