David Simon, creator of The Wire, a fictional drama that followed the Baltimore Police Department, told the Marshall Project's Bill Keller that the protests in Baltimore aren't just over the death of Freddie Gray, who died of a fatal spinal cord injury a week after an allegedly brutal arrest — but about the long history of a police department that's built a reputation of abusing and tormenting local communities.
Simon, who was also a Baltimore crime reporter, told the Marshall Project:
[I]t's time to make new sergeants or lieutenants, and so you look at the computer and say: Who's doing the most work? And they say, man, this guy had 80 arrests last month, and this other guy's only got one. Who do you think gets made sergeant? And then who trains the next generation of cops in how not to do police work? I've just described for you the culture of the Baltimore police department amid the deluge of the drug war, where actual investigation goes unrewarded and where rounding up bodies for street dealing, drug possession, loitering such — the easiest and most self-evident arrests a cop can make — is nonetheless the path to enlightenment and promotion and some additional pay.
Simon is essentially explaining how generations of police officers were corrupted by twisted incentives in the war on drugs. As the crack cocaine epidemic exploded in inner cities during the 1980s, desperate governments — including that of Baltimore — reacted with draconian policies that emphasized arresting as many people as possible in order to deter drug trafficking and other crimes. But as this escalated, local governments and police lost sight of their original purpose and focused more and more on punching up the number of arrests and punishments — rather than helping impoverished communities rise up.
This is what happened in Baltimore. Neighborhoods like Gray's have languished with populations in which more than half the residents aren't working and one-third of residential buildings are vacant or abandoned, according to a February 2015 report by the Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative. At the same time, local police have engaged in such brutal tactics that they had to pay $5.7 million in settlements to more than 100 people since 2011 over allegations of abuse and beatings, according to a September 2014 report by the Baltimore Sun's Mark Puente.
It's this kind of history that makes it believable that Gray didn't suffer from some sort of accident while under police custody. Instead, the people of Baltimore — particularly black communities often targeted by police — are much more likely to believe he was just another victim of a long history of police brutality.