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A crisis consultant explains how Baltimore officials mishandled Freddie Gray's death

Demonstrators protest the lack of answers over Freddie Gray's death.
Demonstrators protest the lack of answers over Freddie Gray's death.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Violence broke out in Baltimore on Monday, April 27, as tensions boiled over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal cord injury after police arrested him. And a crisis consultant says the way city officials have handled the aftermath of Gray's death are partly to blame for the rising tensions.

The lack of information coming out of the official investigation, including how, exactly, Gray got the injury or whether police were to blame, has fueled the protests. Police said they need until May 1 — nearly three weeks after Gray's arrest — to finish their inquiry, and they won't release information until then.

As head of Mitroff Crisis Management, Ian Mitroff's job is to help people, including some police departments in the past, handle major crises. He's sympathetic to the police department's need to conduct a thorough investigation. But he said city officials could have handled their communication with the public better.

The city is stuck between two really tough choices

Freddie Gray protests

Protesters march over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Baltimore police officers arrested Gray on April 12, after he made eye contact with one officer and fled in an area of town known for crime and drug trafficking, according to police. Police chased and eventually caught up to Gray, who was carrying a switchblade. The officers arrested him, and he was shown in video recordings screaming in apparent pain during the arrest. At some point in the police van, Gray had a medical emergency and was rushed to a hospital. He died a week later.

Officials haven't confirmed how Gray received the fatal injury, or if the police officers involved in the arrest caused it. Police are currently investigating the arrest and death in an investigation expected to conclude on May 1, but they have refused to disclose details to avoid skewing the investigation in any way.

In the meantime, protests have grown more and more heated as demonstrators — and Gray's family — have demanded answers about what happened. Riots broke out on Monday, April 27, after Gray's funeral, when demonstrators began looting, burning cars, and throwing bricks, rocks, and bottles at police, injuring at least 15 officers.

Mitroff acknowledged the city and police are stuck between two very difficult choices: they need to conduct a thorough investigation without public leaks to avoid prejudicing the inquiry and exposing themselves to any legal liability, but the public is only going to get more incensed as days and weeks go by without an explanation as to how Gray died.

"It really is the devil's dilemma. If you release [the information], you cause one kind of crisis — a legal one. If you don't release it, you cause a civil disturbance," Mitroff said. "You know, I'd probably come down on their side, too."

But city officials could have reacted differently

Baltimore protests

Police face off with protesters in Baltimore. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

After the police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, city officials reacted very quickly in communicating with the public. North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers described himself as "sickened" after he saw video footage of the shooting, which showed officer Michael Slager shooting Scott in the back. City officials quickly released the evidence they had available.

Contrast that with the reaction to Gray's death in Baltimore. Although Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she's "frustrated" and "angry," the police commissioner has conducted interviews and press conferences in which he's looked more like he's making excuses for police rather than trying to relate to the public furor. Asked whether he was frustrated with the lack of answers, Commissioner Anthony Batts told CBS Baltimore, "Rushing to judgment, or skipping over evidence, or cutting it short just to give an answer is not fair to that family. It's not fair to the police officers and it's not fair to the community."

It's true the Scott shooting was a more clear-cut case — video footage of the full shooting was quickly available. But there are some recordings of the arrest in Baltimore that show police officers dragging Gray while he's screaming in apparent pain. That footage led former Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm to tell CNN, "I thought we were better than that" — putting him at sharp odds with the current commissioner, who's been tame with his words.

Mitroff pointed out the difference in tone used in North Charleston compared with Baltimore, which made North Charleston police officials look more reasonable in the eye of a public that was clearly outraged.

"Using that kind of blunt, emotional language is what people feel when they see that," Mitroff said, referencing how the North Charleston police chief reacted. "So he humanized himself."

Cities should be preparing for these crises after the Ferguson protests

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Gray's death comes after several police killings over the past year, including the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, which led to nationwide protests over racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system. These circumstances, Mitroff said, should be pushing officials and police departments to prepare for something similar to happen in their own cities.

"How many of these incidents have we had? How many shootings have we had? If the light has not gone on in all police departments and city governments, then something is seriously wrong," Mitroff said. "One of the cardinal rules of crisis management is you can't just react. If you just react without any background preparation or simulation going through this stuff, you'll make it invariably worse."

Watch: Why filming the police is so important

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