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Baltimore police focus on van ride in investigation of Freddie Gray's death

Baltimore police said on Monday that Freddie Gray asked for medical attention repeatedly while officers shuttled him in the back of a prisoner transport van, but they didn't call for paramedics until they found him critically injured and unresponsive at the end of the ride.

Baltimore police said Monday that Freddie Gray asked for medical attention repeatedly while officers shuttled him in the back of a prisoner transport van, but they didn't call for paramedics until they found him critically injured and unresponsive at the end of the ride.

On Sunday, one week after Gray's arrest, the Baltimore man died of injuries that included damage to his spinal cord and a crushed voice box.

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Officials said they are focusing on what happened during the 30-minute ride in the police van as the likely explanation for his injuries.

"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 residents, who said they witnessed Gray's arrest and stops during his transport, reported hearing his screams and seeing officers beat him.

The case has stoked tensions in Baltimore — with protests expected to continue at least through Wednesday — and put the Police Department in the national spotlight as the latest law enforcement agency accused of using deadly force on a black man without justification.

"We are a community that's on the edge right now," Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said at a news conference. "Our voices need to be heard, the community's voices need to be heard, and the most important part is that we need to listen.

"We too are part of this community and we hear — I hear — the outrage. I hear the concern, and I also hear the fear."

Police pledged reforms, including requesting medical help as soon as prisoners need it, and they said all transport officers would be retrained to ensure they know first aid and proper procedures.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked city residents to remain peaceful, saying that she understood "our community is experiencing a great deal of trauma."

Nearly seven months ago, the mayor invited the Department of Justice to review allegations of police brutality and other misconduct.

That review — following a Baltimore Sun investigation into millions of dollars of legal settlements related to those allegations — is underway. After Gray's death, some lawmakers and community leaders called for the review to be expanded to a civil rights investigation.

"This is a very, very tense time for Baltimore City, and I understand the community frustration," Rawlings-Blake said. "I understand because I'm frustrated. I'm angry that we're here again. That we have had to tell another mother that their child is dead. I'm frustrated that not only that we're here but we don't have all the answers."

William Stewart, who said he was a close friend of Gray's, was one of about 40 protesting outside City Hall and Baltimore police headquarters Monday morning, using chants such as: "Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail."

"That's like a father killing their son," said Stewart, characterizing how residents felt about Gray's death. "They're supposed to protect us."

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The demonstration included tense face-offs between activists, police and even a lone counter-demonstrator. Later in the day, a police commander was surrounded by angry residents as he tried to express sympathy to residents at the public housing complex where Gray was arrested.

On April 12, officers on bicycles made eye contact with Gray, 25, and another man at Gilmor Homes, a three- and four-story red brick complex of apartments located in West Baltimore.

The complex, police said, had been a "hot spot" of crime and it was under increased surveillance. Both men ran, and police took Gray to the ground.

A charging document in Gray's case filed in District Court said he was detained because "he fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence." The police report said he was arrested "without force or incident."

Officers found a "switchblade knife" clipped to the inside of his front pants pocket and arrested him. Knives with blades that spring open are illegal, according to city code.

Rodriguez said Monday that an officer drew his Taser but did not use it.

As Gray was loaded into a transport wagon, Rodriguez said, he asked for an inhaler, but police did not have one. Nor did they call for paramedics.

Gray began acting "irate" in the back of the van, Rodriguez said. The van stopped about seven minutes after it left the scene of Gray's arrest so that officers could fill out paperwork and put leg irons on him to better restrain him, Rodriguez said.

At Druid Hill Avenue and Dolphin Street, the van picked up another prisoner, at which time Gray again spoke to officers. "And again, we need to assess Mr. Gray's condition, how we responded, were we able to act accordingly," Rodriguez said.

The van drove to the Western District police station with both suspects, and at 9:24 a.m. — about a half-hour after the trip began — a medic was called after Gray was found unresponsive.

"During transport to Western District via wagon transport the defendant suffered a medical emergency and was immediately transported to Shock Trauma via medic," the police report said.

The full autopsy wasn't released.

Gilmor Homes residents said Monday that they witnessed police beating Gray while he was put in leg irons.

"They did not have to beat that boy," said Alethea Booze, 71.

She said she was preparing a dinner of turkey wings, mashed potatoes and greens when she heard screaming outside; she said it sounded like someone in severe pain. When she and others rushed outside to the corner of Mount and Presbury streets, she said, she saw three officers dragging Gray across the sidewalk.

"He was yelling, 'You're breaking my legs! You're breaking my legs!'" Booze said. "We were hollering, 'Stop! Call the ambulance! Stop! Call the ambulance!' But they weren't listening."

Booze said after the initial interaction near her home, police put Gray in the wagon, drove a block to Mount and Baker streets, took him out and starting roughing him up again.

Tobias Sellers, Booze's brother, said he was asleep in his home near Booze's when the altercation began on the corner outside. "The scream was so loud it woke me up and I ran down," he said.

Gray was not that big, Sellers said, and the officers appeared to be roughing him up though he wasn't posing a threat to their safety. Court records show Gray was 5 foot 8 and about 145 pounds.

"Those big police beating on a boy like that. They could have taken him with one hand," he said.

Told of the residents' account, Baltimore police spokesman Capt. Eric Kowalczyk disputed it.

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"There was no indication of any physical assault or any use of force," he said. "No interviews, no cellphone video, no indication of a use of force."

Six officers remain suspended with pay while a task force that includes police's Force Investigation Team, crime lab and homicide detectives finish a report that they plan to present to the state's attorney's office by May 1.

The officers under investigation include three officers who were on bicycles, the van driver and two other officers. Police said they have all been interviewed.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement Monday that she wanted to "assure the public that my office has dedicated all its existing resources to independently investigate this matter to determine whether criminal charges will be brought." She encouraged any witnesses to contact her office.

Her husband, City Councilman Nick Mosby, represents the area that includes Gilmor Homes and said he wants police to release all information related to Gray's arrest and transport.

"As time lapses, it only breeds skepticism and distrust," he said. "A man lost his life in the custody of folks who are sworn to protect, and who we should be able to trust. No one is saying to do anything to rush to judgment¿ however, you have to communicate things that the community feels is part of the process. For the folks in West Baltimore, they don't feel they are part of the process."

Some said that officers didn't need to detain Gray for running from police.

"Nobody should be burying their child because police stopped them in a drug-infested neighborhood," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, who was visibly upset while attending a protest. "The whole city is a drug-infested neighborhood."

At an afternoon news conference, police said they're still investigating why Gray was stopped. Rawlings-Blake said she wanted to dispel any notion that police used the switchblade as a reason for stopping Gray.

"We know that having a knife is not necessarily cause," she said. "It's not necessarily probable cause to chase someone."

As people struggled to comprehend how Gray died, demonstrators took out their frustration on police, standing in front of police headquarters and shouting for Batts to come out and address them.

A line of uniformed police officers prevented the demonstrators from approaching the building's entrances.

One officer — Shantel Bonaparte — responded to Joy Walker, who brought her son and nephew to the demonstration. As her son dribbled a blue basketball, the women talked. Bonaparte told Walker that she was very much like her when she took off her uniform.

The discussion left Bonaparte emotional, and afterward she shielded her face from the crowd and took another officer's hand.

"Every cop is not bad," said Walker. "She's an example of that."

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Jessica Anderson and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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