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Every step of Freddie Gray’s arrest reflects huge problems found by the Justice Department

A mural for Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the Justice Department’s very damning report on the Baltimore Police Department, Freddie Gray’s name was seldom mentioned — but it rang through all the findings as a reminder of just how horribly every aspect of policing can go.

The report found a police force that got virtually everything wrong — pedestrian and traffic stops, use of force, arrests, transportation, training, oversight, accountability, basic interactions with the community, racial bias.

We still don’t know everything about Gray’s death and the lead-up to it — and we probably won’t ever know. But with this report, there is just enough context to put together the many mistakes that were made as Baltimore police arrested Gray and transported him in the last car ride of his life.

First, the initial stop.

Gray was black. Based on the Justice Department’s findings, that likely contributed to police stopping him:

Citywide, BPD stopped African-American residents three times as often as white residents after controlling for the population of the area in which the stops occurred. In each of BPD’s nine police districts, African Americans accounted for a greater share of BPD’s stops than the population living in the district. And BPD is far more likely to subject individual African Americans to multiple stops in short periods of time. In the five and a half years of data we examined, African Americans accounted for 95 percent of the 410 individuals BPD stopped at least 10 times.

Baltimore police chased and stopped Gray after merely making eye contact with him — risking a violent confrontation without any proof that Gray posed a serious threat to anyone.

Again, a big problem that the Justice Department consistently found in its report:

BPD [Baltimore Police Department] officers frequently engage in foot pursuits of individuals, even where the fleeing individuals are not suspected of violent crimes. BPD’s foot pursuit tactics endanger officers and the community, and frequently lead to officers using excessive force on fleeing suspects who pose minimal threat.

Then, Gray’s arrest: The timeline of events remains in dispute, but Baltimore police may have detained and arrested Gray before they had reason to believe that he had done anything wrong. Baltimore police said they found an illegal knife on Gray, but it’s not clear if the knife was really illegal. And even if it was, the search for the knife may have been unconstitutional, because it took place after Gray was detained, and police may have had no legal justification to detain him in the first place.

This was another type of problem the Justice Department found in its report — even raising the question of whether Gray would have been charged at all had he survived:

During stops, officers commonly conduct weapons frisks — or more invasive searches — despite lacking reasonable suspicion that the subject of the search is armed. These practices escalate street encounters and contribute to officers making arrests without probable cause, 36 often for discretionary misdemeanor offenses like disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, loitering, trespassing, and failure to obey. Indeed, BPD’s own supervisors at Central Booking and prosecutors in the State’s Attorney’s Office declined to charge more than 11,000 arrests made by BPD officers since 2010.

Finally, Gray’s transportation: We again don’t have much information on this, because there’s no video or other witnesses of his ride. But we know Gray was transported while cuffed and without a seat belt, despite his repeated pleas for medical help, and broke his neck in the transport vehicle — an injury that would later kill him.

This, too, was a problem cited by the Justice Department:

A lack of video monitoring and data collection surrounding BPD’s transport practices prevented us from reaching a conclusive determination regarding a practice of ‘rough rides’ or constitutional violations in transportation. Nonetheless, we found evidence that BPD officers routinely fail to safely secure arrestees in transport vans with seat belts. In multiple instances in the past, this failure has resulted in serious injuries and, in some circumstances, death.

So at every step of the process of Gray’s arrest and transportation, there was a sign of the systemic problems detailed in the Justice Department report. Yet no single police officer or city official will apparently pay for Gray’s death — the charges against all six officers were dropped after three of the officers were acquitted in court.

With police, the problem is often what’s legal

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby on May 1, when she announced charges against the police officers involved in Freddie Gray's death.
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby on May 1, when she announced charges against the police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Shortly after Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she would drop the charges against the police officers involved in Gray’s death, she made it clear that she was only doing it because the system was broken:

After much thought and prayer, it has become clear that without being able to work with an independent investigatory agency from the very start, without having a say in the election of whether cases proceed in front of a judge or jury, without communal oversight of police in this community, without substantive reforms to the current criminal justice system, we could try this case 100 times just like it and we would still end up with the same result.

This conclusion fits with the Justice Department’s report. It certainly seems like a lot went wrong in Gray’s arrest. Yet Mosby found it impossible to successfully try any of the officers involved.

Again, this speaks to yet another problem found in the Justice Department’s report: There is virtually no accountability at the Baltimore Police Department. The Justice Department noted:

BPD lacks meaningful accountability systems to deter misconduct. The Department does not consistently classify, investigate, adjudicate, and document complaints of misconduct according to its own policies and accepted law enforcement standards. Instead, we found that BPD personnel discourage complaints from being filed, misclassify complaints to minimize their apparent severity, and conduct little or no investigation. As a result, a resistance to accountability persists throughout much of BPD, and many officers are reluctant to report misconduct for fear that doing so is fruitless and may provoke retaliation. The Department also lacks adequate civilian oversight—its Civilian Review Board is hampered by inadequate resources, and the agency’s internal affairs and disciplinary process lacks transparency.

The lack of accountability is a big reason for the Black Lives Matter movement over racial disparities in policing and the criminal justice system.

Even though police regularly appear to use excessive force — especially in Baltimore, as the Justice Department report makes clear — they’re rarely held accountable for it. An analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, for example, found that police were charged in less than 2 percent of police-involved killings between 2010 and 2014. In these killings, 69 percent of the victims were black, even though they make up 29 percent of Maryland's population. About 41 percent of the victims were unarmed.

This applies across the US. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of those officers ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those figures are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

But these figures may simply show the current state of the law. The precedent set by Supreme Court cases only requires that a police officer merely reasonably perceive a threat to use force, even if a threat is not, in reality, actually present.

Police say this kind of leniency is needed so they don’t have to worry about the legal consequences as they make potentially lifesaving, split-second decisions. But this also gives them a lot of room to kill people who are doing nothing wrong.

To compound this issue, very often cases will come down between civilian eyewitnesses and the police officer — and juries are much more likely to believe the latter.

“There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility,” David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Amanda Taub for Vox. “And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction.”

Should the legality of these systemic problems — or at least the ease with which one can defend these types of cases in court — give anyone comfort?

As someone who covers policing issues for a living, that doesn’t seem right to me. And it seems like we end up with the same problem that popped up after the deaths of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and many more: When it comes to police, the problem is often what they can legally get away with — not that they explicitly broke the law. So until the law and other police policies change, many of these problems will likely continue.