Cops finish Freddie Gray probe, but what really happened?

The difficulty in getting answers highlights the challenges of managing investigations into explosive events like the death of a black man in police custody. Baltimore police turned their report on the Freddie Gray case over to prosecutors Thursday.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts announced Thursday that the department's investigation into the death of Freddie Gray was turned over to the State's Attorney's office.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts vowed “transparency and truth” from an investigation into the April 19 death of Freddie Gray. On Thursday, following work by a 30-strong team of investigators, Baltimore police turned over to prosecutors a report on the death, which occurred after Mr. Gray sustained serious injuries while in police custody.

For days now, Americans have been making do with questionable details and contradictory theories. And the key question has loomed: What really happened to Mr. Gray?

The difficulty in getting answers highlights the challenges of managing investigations into explosive events like the death of a black man in police custody, especially in a city with deep racial and economic disparities and a long history of allegations of police brutality against blacks.

“The history of black people, as well as other marginalized minorities, dying under mysterious circumstances is vast and stretches into our current American reality,” writes Jamil Smith in The New Republic. That’s why, he adds, in “this and all cases, we shouldn’t have to wait until an indictment is or isn’t handed down to find out what happened ....”

The mystery over how Gray died a week after his arrest has fueled frustrations and protests in Baltimore, a city facing lingering distrust between police and some poor black neighborhoods. Keenly aware of those dynamics, Baltimore authorities say they’ve been moving with a sense of urgency, with the report from the 30 investigators being delivered one day ahead of a self-imposed deadline.

Gray suffered injuries to his spinal cord and larynx, according to his family.

The information available so far has sometimes led to more public frustration. For example, police reports that have been located by the press have at times contradicted other evidence. One report that said Gray was arrested without incident, even as video footage shows Gray howling in pain, barely able to walk.

Another police report, quoted by The Washington Post late Wednesday, referenced testimony from a prisoner in the police van that also transported Gray. That individual, according to the report, said Gray was banging around the van, apparently trying to hurt himself.

According to the police timeline, however, the prisoner was only in the van for five minutes out of a 40-minute ride. Also, he could not see Gray because of a metal partition.

Medical professionals have weighed in on the self-injury notion, saying there's nearly no way that someone could break his or her own neck and larynx, whether at the same time or separately. Moreover, stories about Gray having been in a car accident before his arrest and having had recent back surgery have been debunked.

“We disagree with any implication that Freddie Gray severed his own spinal cord,” Jason Downs, a family attorney, told the Post. “We question the accuracy of the police reports we’ve seen thus far, including the police report that says Mr. Gray was arrested without force or incident.”

The idea of Gray contributing to his injuries became a key talking point for bloggers and mainstream media outlets on Thursday, underscoring how the death has been cited in broader arguments about whether protesters have ginned up anger against police.

“And so it continues, crackpot theories and right-wing ‘exclusives,’ plus the occasional mainstream report coming from police department leaks, all trying to exonerate police and implicate Freddie Gray in his own death,” writes Joan Walsh, author of "What’s the Matter With White People?,” in Salon. “All of this noise could be silenced by an official police report on the incident.”

At this point, it’s not clear whether Gray sustained injuries during the initial arrest or during the van ride. Police in Baltimore have been implicated at least three other times for seriously hurting people during “nickel rides,” where unbuckled but handcuffed prisoners are subjected to tight turns and quick stops.

Kevin Davis, a deputy Baltimore police commissioner, added one new detail on Thursday. He said the officers in the van made an extra stop during the transport that they did not tell investigators about. Investigators found out only by perusing private video cameras trained on the route the van took.

For some political science experts, public frustrations underscore the need for more transparency and civilian oversight of police in general, so residents will have more reasons to trust the official version of events.

“Right now, only law enforcement officers or designees of Maryland’s governor or attorney general can investigate police misconduct. This should not stand,” Baltimore resident Lester Spence, a John Hopkins political science professor, writes in the New York Daily News. “Right now, only law enforcement officials can serve on police review boards. This should be modified. Right now, police officers are able to get copies of their file before they have to appear before the review board. This should be changed.”

In terms of Gray’s death, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office will be deciding whether to file criminal charges, now that the report has been submitted. The US Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation.

After Monday’s violent flare-ups, a 10 p.m. curfew and a contingent of National Guardsmen have managed to keep the streets quiet.

One reason for the relative quiet, activists say, is that there are some significant backstops that could help validate the eventual official findings on Gray’s death.

For one, officials have already admitted some misconduct by the police on the scene, including the failure to buckle Gray into the police wagon and failure to get him immediate medical help after it became clear he was seriously injured.

Moreover, the prosecutor overseeing the case, Marilyn Mosby, is an elected black official in a majority black city. The daughter and granddaughter of police officers, Mosby wasn’t expected to win election last year, but prevailed after vowing to crack down on repeat offenders and root out police corruption, which she has said hurts the reputation of good cops. She is one of the youngest state prosecutors in the country.

Addressing community concerns about police investigating police, Ms. Mosby said in a statement: "We are not relying solely on [police] findings but rather the facts that we have gathered and verified. We ask for the public to remain patient and peaceful and to trust the process of the justice system."

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