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The DOJ report doesn't say how Freddie Gray died, but it does explain why

The DOJ report doesn't say how Freddie Gray died, but it does explain why.

When Vanita Gupta, who heads the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, announced the findings of the 14-month frederal probe of the Baltimore Police Department, she made clear that it was not an investigation of Freddie Gray's death. That's true; it barely mentions him and certainly comes to no conclusions about the specific circumstances of his arrest and fatal injury. But in its searing critique of the department's practices, it explains everything that happened that morning.

'Daily measurables'

At 8:39 a.m. on April 12, 2015, four Baltimore police officers spotted Freddie Gray at the corner of West North Avenue and North Mount Street. It was no coincidence that the officers were there; they were part of a "daily narcotics initiative" as a result of a request from State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's office to a Western District commander to target that corner for "enhanced" attention. That translated into orders from the commander to officers — including Lt. Brian Rice, the highest ranking officer who faced charges after Gray's death — to produce "daily measurables."

The DOJ report explains exactly what that means. Federal investigators found a pervasive attitude among patrol officers and supervisors that their job was to produce statistics — stops, searches, arrests — and to clear corners. It was a vestige of the department's "zero tolerance" strategy of a decade ago that "prioritized attempts to suppress crime by regularly stopping and searching pedestrians and arresting them on any available charges, including discretionary misdemeanor offenses." Though recent police commissioners have tried to steer the department away from it, the DOJ found that many supervisors "continue to encourage officers to prioritize short-term suppression, including aggressive use of stops, frisks, and misdemeanor arrests." The federal investigators found a flyer posted in several districts making a joke about the Violent Crimes Impact Division, a specialized unit designed to address the most serious crimes. It showed what appears to be three officers leading a handcuffed, hoodie-wearing man down an alley toward a transport van with the words "VCID: Striking fear into loiters [sic] City-Wide."

Stop and frisk

We don't know what was going through Freddie Gray's mind when he saw the officers, but the context provided by the DOJ report gives a good guess. He would have had good reason to believe he would be stopped, frisked and perhaps arrested even though he was doing nothing more than walking home with friends after trying to get breakfast at a carry-out that was closed. The DOJ found that Baltimore police recorded more than 301,000 pedestrian stops during a four-year period, heavily concentrated in poor, black neighborhoods. The true number, the report says, was likely much higher, owing to shoddy record-keeping. Forty-four percent of the stops were in the Western and Central districts. Gray himself had been stopped twice in the same week in February, and the federal investigators found reason to conclude that he had likely been stopped many other times that were not recorded.

Gray wasn't carrying drugs or a gun. He had a knife clipped inside his pants, but in an ordinary, constitutional encounter with the police, they would have had no cause to discover it. The Baltimore police, however, "pat-down or frisk individuals as a matter of course, without identifying necessary grounds to believe that the person is armed and dangerous. And even where an initial frisk is justified, we found that officers often violate the Constitution by exceeding the frisk's permissible scope" — for example by conducting strip searches in full view of the street. Police often detain people to check for warrants or even take them to Central Booking for no discernible reason.

Discretionary arrests

Freddie Gray was no stranger to these facts. He had been arrested many times, almost exclusively for low-level drug charges. That's not surprising; the DOJ report found that despite similar levels of drug use, blacks in Baltimore were five times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than whites. Also typical of Baltimore, Gray's arrests rarely led to convictions. The DOJ found 11,000 instances when prosecutors or supervisors at Central Booking rejected charges by Baltimore police because they lacked probable cause. Gray also had a record of what the DOJ calls "discretionary arrests" for things like trespassing and, in one case possessing "gaming cards, dice" — crimes for which African-Americans are arrested at overwhelming rates. Blacks make up 63 percent of Baltimore residents but 91 percent of arrests for trespassing or failure to obey, the DOJ found.

(For those in the suburbs who can't get past Gray's criminal record, try this experiment: Sit on your front porch and play dice. See how long it takes you to get arrested. You may want to bring snacks.)

Foot chases and use of force

So, when Freddie Gray made eye contact with one of the officers that morning, he ran, and the police chased him, evidently for no reason other than the fact that he was fleeing and in a high-crime area. That's no coincidence either. "When officers encounter civilians who flee from them, officers nearly always give chase, without weighing the severity of any suspected crime, whether the person poses a threat, and any alternative, safer means to affect a stop or seizure," the DOJ found.

The police report of Gray's arrest says he was taken into custody "without force or incident." But witnesses and cellphone video tell a different story. Those at the scene say he was forcibly taken to the ground, that an officer pinned a knee to his neck and that another bent his legs backward, "like he was a crab or a piece of origami," as one witness put it. And that's not uncommon either. The DOJ reports that Baltimore police foot chases frequently result in the use of force out of proportion to the needs of safety or the suspected criminal activity — and remember, in this case, they had no specific suspicion at all. Foot pursuits are high-adrenaline activities that frequently render officers unable to make sound judgments and prone to unconstitutional use of force, the report says.

For that reason, departments need clear policies and specific training on foot chases, but Baltimore police have neither, the DOJ found. According to the report, the department has been aware of the need for a policy since at least 2013 but has never adopted one. Until 2015, the department had no specific training on foot pursuits for new recruits at the police academy or refresher training for experienced officers.

Dangerous transport practices

The video of Gray's arrest shows officers dragging him into a police van. Video from a later stop shows him handcuffed and shackled and loaded face-down into the back. At no point was he seat belted. Those decisions — to put Gray in a defenseless and unrestrained posture in the back of the van — were likely the ones that led to his death. They were also standard operating procedure for the Baltimore police.

The DOJ report confirms that Baltimore police had for years routinely flouted a policy that detainees should be secured with seat belts in the back of vans, that commanders knew it and did little about it. The department conducted sporadic audits of seat belting practices in 2012, 2014 and 2015. "With each audit, BPD inspected one transport vehicle from each of the districts, one time," the report says, and though some of the audits showed improvement, their findings were contradicted both by reports from officers and detainees. "One officer who spoke to us described the transportation process before Freddie Gray's death as 'load and go,' often with little regard for seatbelts," the DOJ reported.

The vans themselves were dangerous — the way they were partitioned made it "possible for detainees being transported, if not properly secured, to strike their head on the divider or walls relatively easily; and there is virtually no padding to protect the person from injury." The vans lacked functional video cameras or any other means for the driver to observe the passengers, or even to hear them well, so it's altogether plausible that the officer transporting Gray would have had no way to know he was injured until he reached the Western District. A post-Freddie Gray retrofit of the vans still has substantial flaws that fail to address that problem.

The DOJ report may not provide any insight into how Freddie Gray died, but it says a lot about why. Every element of his encounter with police that morning reflected a pattern of practices by the Baltimore Police Department that was at best flawed and at worst unconstitutional. For those still wondering why the city agreed to a $6.4 million settlement with Gray's family before they even filed a lawsuit, there's your answer.

The DOJ report doesn't say how Freddie Gray died, but it does explain why.

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