As massive protest marches continued across Baltimore, the pressure was building inside police headquarters, and Commissioner Anthony W. Batts wanted answers — fast. Near midnight on a cool April night, he pressed six top commanders sitting at a conference table for details about Freddie Gray's death.
A 30-person task force was interviewing witnesses, reviewing video and searching records in the days after Gray died, but crucial questions remained. Did Gray suffer an injury before his spine was damaged in police custody? Was he hurt while being dragged to a police van or was he malingering? Did police beat him?
Batts asked his commanders if they were aware of the growing tension downtown, where swarms of protesters had halted rush hour traffic that day. Demonstrators yelled and swore at police officers, chanting "No justice, no peace!" To handle the crisis, the Police Department had canceled vacations and ordered all officers into duty; the Maryland State Police also was called in to help.
Are you guys paying attention out here? And it's going to get worse if we don't give them some answers to something.
Commissioner Anthony W. Batts
Share quote & link
"Are you guys paying attention out here?" Batts said. "And it's going to get worse if we don't give them some answers to something."
Batts' words on Thursday, April 23, added to the pressure that commanders and task force members felt as they hustled to answer a question: How did Gray die?
Now, that question will be central to the trials of six police officers charged in the 25-year-old's arrest and death. Prosecutors allege that officers did not put Gray in a seat belt after his arrest and failed to provide medical care that he requested — violations of department policy. The six officers, who are suspended, maintain their innocence.
The Sun followed task force members as they canvassed for witnesses, re-enacted Gray's arrest and mapped the van's journey across West Baltimore, looking for clues that could either absolve or incriminate their peers. As the investigation wore on, tensions between police and the office of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby emerged. Police officials worried that prosecutors could upstage their investigation, so they scrambled to wrap up hundreds of tasks before a self-imposed May 1 deadline.
The work took a personal toll. Investigators toiled through birthdays and funerals. A crime lab supervisor went from working the case one day to walking down the aisle at her wedding the next. Twice, investigators had to grab helmets and shields to respond to rioting that was rocking Baltimore.
Baltimore homicide detectives from the task force canvass West Baltimore seeking witnesses and information about Freddie Gray's arrest and subsequent ride in a police van. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)
As the city was torn by looting and arson, the men and women on the task force wrestled with their emotions — along with the irony of having to protect protesters who were criticizing the police. And as police investigating police, they felt a burning distrust from both colleagues and community residents.
Batts gave voice to those feelings. Baltimoreans, he warned his commanders that night, are "not going to believe us. It's a conspiracy. We're hiding everything. We're trying to make those police officers innocent."
The task force's home was a conference room on the fourth floor of the Bureau of Professional Standards, a division that included Internal Affairs and the detectives who investigate allegations of police brutality. On one wall were graphic autopsy photos of Gray's head. Along another wall was a timeline that included photos of his arrest on April 12, the police van, witnesses and officers. A mug shot of Gray bore the label: suspect.
Early in the proceedings, the group's leader, Maj. Stanley Brandford, interrupted a detective discussing the case and said Gray deserved a more neutral name. "When you say suspect, we refer to him as unknown, or Gray," Brandford said.
Brandford, a Southwest Baltimore native, was a former Marine who kept his gray hair shorn close and thin mustache tight on his round face. A two-time commander of the agency's homicide unit, he had a calm demeanor, quick wit and an uncanny ability to memorize facts without taking notes. When he wasn't wearing a suit, he donned a blue windbreaker with "HOMICIDE" printed in large white letters on the back and the unit's patch, which depicted a detective chasing the Grim Reaper.
Repeatedly, he reminded officers their job was not to "put the Police Department in a better light" or to find favorable evidence for "our officers." The group, which included members from all corners of the department, was told to follow wherever each clue led.
The task force started work on April 20 — the day after Gray died at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center — and each day investigators reviewed a minute-by-minute accounting of the incident, beginning with a foot chase near the Gilmor Homes public housing complex and ending with his ambulance ride from the Western District police station. Much of the chronology was drawn from statements that the officers involved in Gray's arrest and transport provided as part of an initial police review.
On the evening of April 23, Brandford signaled it was time to review the findings again.
Soon, a voice from the corner of the room brought the recital and surrounding discussions to a standstill.
"What kind of probable cause do you have?" asked Batts, who was sitting in on that day's session.
"We got the knife," Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis responded, referring to a weapon found in Gray's pocket after he was wrestled to the ground. "The knife was found."
"What probable cause do you have?" Batts asked again.
Gray ran when police made eye contact, a detective said, noting that legal precedent allows officers to pursue someone who flees in a high-crime area and to detain them based on reasonable suspicion.
A bystander recorded the arrest of Freddie Gray on his phone on April 12, 2015. (Edited for strong language)
A "Terry stop" — a nickname drawn from a 1968 Supreme Court ruling — is one thing. An arrest requires probable cause, a legal threshold higher than suspicion.
The fact that detectives handcuffed Gray before they found a knife in his pocket was troubling to Batts. Did detectives suspect when they caught Gray that he had a gun? "Bulges or anything?" the commissioner asked. "Do we actually have that at this point?"
Hours later, after most task force members had gone home for the night, Batts sat with his commanders to discuss another thorny issue: compelling the police van's driver, Caesar Goodson Jr., to give a statement to investigators. Evidence indicated that Gray sustained his fatal injury in the van, but investigators didn't know how it happened.
"The game that he can play is: 'I'm not gonna talk to you,'" Batts said. "Well, he's not talking to us already. He's already lawyered up, right? What do we lose by compelling him?"
Brandford and the others stared back. Officers, like anyone else charged with a crime, have a constitutional right to avoid incriminating themselves. But as a Police Department employee, Goodson could be required to discuss anything that occurred on the job — as long as his statements were not used in court.
"If the state's attorney finds out we learned something administratively that they can't use criminally, they would have a problem with that," Davis said.
"They wouldn't know anyway," Batts responded, noting that police would not be allowed to disclose what Goodson had said.
Even if Goodson's words could not be used by prosecutors, Batts saw value in them. The account might yield crucial information, filling holes in the chronology. The statement also could help defuse tension in the city or lead to swift discipline — even firing — of Goodson.
Batts could sense that Baltimore was on the brink of violence; he had seen it before. In 1992, when the police beating of Rodney King led to riots in Los Angeles, he was an officer in nearby Long Beach. In 2010, when he was police chief in Oakland, protests over the shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by transit police triggered waves of vandalism.
To the reluctant commanders, Batts said, "So what do we tell to this community that's setting this city on fire right now? Do we go out there and [say], 'I don't know.' Or do I compel him and get another statement or get an understanding, and say there is misconduct or there is not misconduct there?
At some point in time, beyond this case, we have the responsibility of the public trust.
Commissioner Anthony W. Batts
Share quote & link
"At some point in time, beyond this case, we have the responsibility of the public trust."
The commanders, including Davis, continued to push back.
It was an uneasy exchange for Davis, who lost his job as Anne Arundel County police chief when a new county executive was elected, and was hired by Batts in January. He was grateful to Batts for the job and understood the commissioner's desire to provide the public with answers, but Davis also was concerned about a potential prosecution. He said Goodson could potentially be charged with manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter by negligence, and compelling him to talk to investigators might endanger the case.
Lt. Col. David Reitz noted that investigators had already uncovered enough evidence to establish that there was an "atmosphere" of negligence that caused Gray's death. "We didn't seat belt the guy in. We drove this guy around for a half-hour after he said he couldn't breathe and needed a medic."
The commanders suggested Batts tell the public that investigators had uncovered police misconduct.
Batts was clearly frustrated that so many questions remained about Gray's injury. As commissioner, it was his job to weather scrutiny and criticism — and protect his officers — but he needed to know what happened to Gray. He had set the May 1 deadline to provide answers quickly to the public. "Can you definitively tell me that [officers] did not beat him before they put him in that van?" Batts asked.
The commanders said they could not.
Batts told them the public needed to know the truth. He needed to know the truth.
But only two people appeared to have the answers: Gray, who was dead, and Goodson, who wasn't talking.