For a city with an African-American mayor, an African-American police commissioner and a 63.3 percent African-American population, Baltimore’s “1950’s level racism,” as said by Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, seems strange. The Baltimore police department, in fact, has had an abysmal track record in with in-custody deaths and the use of undue force.
The city has faced 317 police brutality lawsuits since 2011 and has shelled out $5.7 million to the 102 lawsuits which have been settled. Another $5.8 million was spent on legal fees by the city. Most often the victims were African-Americans. The Baltimore police department had to create a special “Force Investigation Team” to look into the cases that involve the use of force by a police personnel.
The American Civil Liberties Union reported that blacks in Maryland were five times more likely to die from interactions with the police than whites. In March they also reported the death of 31 people between 2010 and 2014 after encounters with the Baltimore police department, with the statewide figure at 109. Criminal charges were pressed against less than 2 percent of the involved officers. Nearly 70 percent of the dead were black and more than 40 percent of the dead were actually unarmed.
Amidst all this, there lived Freddie Gray Jr., a 25-year-old African-American. He had a criminal record and had been pulled up for drug-related charges on previous occasions. On April 12, he was walking in an unsafe area of the city and fled after making eye contact with the patrolling Baltimore police department men. He was on foot and was pursued by three officers on bicycles. They eventually caught up to him and pushed him to the ground. They immobilized him at 8:42 am and after a pat down revealed a knife in his pant pockets, he was arrested. This is where the video comes in which started after the police had Gray pinned to the ground.
Passersby recorded videos of the entire incident which showed a screaming Gray lying on the ground. He was then cuffed and dragged into a waiting police van. He was unable to support himself and was also complaining of breathlessness. The video ends there, but the story does not.
The Baltimore police department’s records show that Gray asked for medical care several times while he was in the van but he was ignored. He was put in leg irons, but was not wearing a seat belt during the trip to the station. At some point during the entire showdown, Gray had sustained a fatal injury which severed 80 percent of his spine. In the meantime, the police van also stopped to pick up another prisoner on its way to the station. When Gray was taken out of the van, he was unable to breathe or talk.
Fire department paramedics received a call from the police station at 9:26 am and got there at 9:33 am. They finally left for the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Shock Trauma Center at 9:54 am. A week after his arrest, Gray succumbed to his injuries on April 19.
Gray’s death closely follows the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. In the wake of his death, the six police officers involved in his arrest and transport have been suspended. The issue about the values of black lives and why the police use undue force has been pushed to the forefront again.
The Baltimore police department’s victims range from teenagers to aged octogenarian and prove their abysmal track record. The use of deadly force by policemen is acceptable only if someone’s life is in danger or if the suspect is fleeing, according to the law. Only in the event of the officer suspecting a violent crime, is he allowed to arrest a fleeing person by force. There is leeway in the clause to help officers take quick measures to protect lives, but Gray’s knife was never wielded so the police had no cause to suspect him. These incidents have strained the relationship between the people and the Baltimore police department and the protests following Gray’s death are a proof of that. Two people were arrested in yesterday’s protests, which were mostly peaceful. The mayor and the police commissioner of Baltimore have been joined by the U.S. Justice Department in the investigation of the cause of Gray’s death. His family, meanwhile, is awaiting the autopsy results and making funeral arrangements.
By Anugya Chitransh
Photo by Ted Van Pelt – Creativecommons Flickr License