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Transparency and the death of Freddie Gray

The death on Sunday of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man severely injured under unexplained circumstances when he was taken into custody by Baltimore police last week, has sparked angry protests by city residents and promises by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of the incident. Today, police released far more detail about the incident than they previously had, but they still provided no satisfactory answers to the most crucial question: How did a 25-year-old man enter a police van with no sign of significant injury and exit it unable to talk or breathe, with a spinal cord injury so severe that he would die? Given the uproar over the deaths of unarmed men at the hands of police nationally and a history of mistrust between the community and police in Baltimore, this explanation, eight days after the fact, is too little, too late.

Up until a nationally televised news conference this afternoon, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and other top officials had not even so much as said why police pursued Mr. Gray in the first place, despite the fact that the information was available in a publicly filed police report. Billy Murphy, the attorney for Gray's family, accused the authorities of keeping quiet until they can find a way to spin events in their favor. The police department's disclosure of new surveillance video and a more detailed timeline of events certainly don't amount to that but instead just deepen the mystery. Nonetheless, the delay in bringing forward what information should have been available immediately following Gray's arrest is bound to raise questions in the public mind about whether we are even now being given the full story.

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The police report reveals that Gray was stopped because he "fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence" and that officers placed him under arrest after a knife was found clipped to the inside of his front pants pocket. "The defendant was arrested without force or incident," the report continued, but "during transport to Western District via wagon transport the defendant suffered a medical emergency and was immediately transported to Shock Trauma via medic."

Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez reiterated at today's news conference that none of the four officers describe using force and that physical evidence shows that while one officer drew his Taser, it was not used on Gray. A video shot by a bystander and a separate surveillance video show Gray being dragged to a police van, but Mr. Rodriguez insists that other than requesting an inhaler, Gray was in no physical distress at the time. Mr. Rodriguez detailed various stops the van took en route to the Western District police station, including one during which Gray was put into leg irons. As to what happened after that, officials profess to have no clue.

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As recently as this morning, Mayor Rawlings-Blake was blaming the lack of information in part on Maryland's Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which gives officers under investigation 10 days to obtain legal counsel. (To her credit, Ms. Rawlings-Blake tried, unsuccessfully, to get that provision of the law modified during the General Assembly session just ended.) The law stipulates that the officers should be questioned at a time of convenience to them, that interrogations be "for a reasonable period" of time, that the officers be given rest periods and that they may not be threatened with "transfer, dismissal, or disciplinary action." We can only speculate that Gray did not expect such accommodations when he made a fateful decision to flee from the four officers who approached him on bicycles.

After all, Baltimore is a city that has spent $5.7 million to settle more than 100 civil suits against the police department since 2011. A place where a 19-year-old patient in a hospital lapsed into a coma and died after officers struck him repeatedly with Tasers. A place where police investigators had video showing an officer beating a man at a crowded bus stop but did nothing until the victim's lawyer released the footage to the media. A place where "zero tolerance" policing a decade ago succeeded in arresting the equivalent of nearly one out of every six city residents in a single year.

In that environment, Mayor Rawlings-Blake needed to tell the public everything she knew without delay. Allowing a week to pass, and only providing answers after the public pressure of protests over Gray's death had intensified, only increased the chances that matters here will spiral out of control no matter what the truth may turn out to be. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's promise a "blue-ribbon" panel of experts to review this case isn't good enough. The Justice Department is already engaged in a "collaborative review" of Baltimore Police policies and procedures, but an official there says it would be premature for the federal officials to step in to this case. State law allows for the governor to request that the attorney general's office handle an investigation like this one. Mayor Rawlings-Blake should ask that he do so. That's the only way the public is going to believe that the investigation into Gray's death is not only thorough and transparent but also independent.

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