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What would you have done in William Porter's shoes?

Put yourself in William Porter's shoes.

You're a rookie cop, with three years on the job, and you know Freddie Gray as a small-time drug dealer. You've seen him get arrested before; once he tried to kick out the window of a police vehicle. On this day, he's arrested by other officers and loaded into the back of a police van, protesting — perhaps rightly — all the while. He proceeds to throw an epic fit, rocking the van. Several stops later, you check on him, and he indicates he needs medical attention. You don't see any obvious injury, you know his history, and you know that no one wants to go to jail. You also know that a hospital trip will mean hours of sitting around instead of policing and that the department is perpetually short staffed. Add to that the likelihood that Central Booking won't take him if he's complaining of injury.

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What would you do?

That's a question cops all over Baltimore should be asking themselves. Their livelihoods — and the lives of their detainees — may depend on it.

Police Department general orders aren't clear. They say officers shall obtain medical treatment "when necessary or requested," but encourage them to use their judgment to determine whether an ambulance should be called or the detainee can be transported in the department van.  Officer Porter's judgment got him charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment, according to testimony this week in his criminal trial, the first of six to be held against Baltimore officers in connection with Gray's death this spring.

Assistant State Medical Examiner Carol Allan told jurors that she would not have ruled Gray's death from a spinal injury sustained in the back of a police transport van a "homicide" if Officer Porter had called for a medic as soon as Gray asked for one. Officer Porter said he assumed Gray was faking, though he also acknowledged it didn't much matter because Central Booking wouldn't accept Gray either way; he told the van driver that a hospital trip was likely in Gray's future regardless. Then another call for assistance came in, and the officers — one driving the only police transport van on the street that day — answered.

Two stops later, Gray was unconscious, and his fate — along with that of the city and six officers — was set.

There's a term for what ails those who suddenly come down with a mysterious illness during arrest: "jail-itis." It's a sort of allergy to incarceration. Those who catch it do anything they can to avoid a trip to Central Booking, even if they know it's not likely to work. Law enforcement officials say it's more common than you think, and they know it exists because they can often talk an arrestee out of it by explaining that a hospital trip would only prolong the process, waste time and limited resources, and annoy everyone involved. The BPD general orders even concede that "hospital details may become tedious" (page 6 of policy 1114).

Maybe if Officer Porter had talked to Gray a little longer that day, he might have realized Gray — who was not seat belted in as department policy requires — was really hurt. (Or maybe not; his defense team doesn't believe the medical examiner's assessment that Gray was injured between stop Nos. 2 and 4, when Officer Porter talked to him.) He at least would have had more time to assess the situation and show, even if he didn't care about Gray, that he took seriously his responsibility to "ensure the safety of the detainee is maintained," per written department policy.

Instead, he followed the unwritten policy, which is to wing it, pushing off the inconvenience of a hospital trip that's nevertheless inevitable. Whether the jury will consider that a crime — and, in particular, the exact crimes for which he was charged — remains to be seen. Either way, what he did appears to be a standard practice. A Sun investigation this spring showed that Central Booking turned away nearly 2,600 arrestees between June 2012 and April of this year because of a wide variety of medical problems, including fractured bones and facial trauma. Maybe the officers who neglected to get help for those people should be thanking their lucky stars they're not on criminal trial.

Or maybe we should blame hospitals, which don't have a fast track for police detainees. Or Central Booking, which could have a physician on staff to assess detainees. Or budget makers, who fixed it so that a section of Baltimore had half the police staff on duty it was supposed to when Gray was arrested.

So again, what would you do?

Here's your choice: Risk wasting resources, which will leave some streets unpoliced; or gamble with two lives — your own and his. You decide.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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