Did Baltimore Cops' Indifference Kill Freddie Gray?

The great majority of cops take the oath because they want to help people. But a corrosive cynicism can poison their initial sense of purpose.

Noah Scialom

No chokehold seems to have been used in arresting 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore, as there was in arresting Eric Garner on Staten Island.

But cellphone videos show that in both incidents the arresting officer evidenced a disturbing deafness to the prisoner’s cries of distress.

Garner was able to verbalize a plea that was later chanted by protesters.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Gray could only manage loud cries of pain as he was hoisted to his feet and dragged in handcuffs to a waiting police wagon.

Yet, as in the Garner case, the officers give no sign of even hearing Gray. The police commander now leading the investigation into the Baltimore incident made clear on Friday that in his view the officers should have been aware of Gray’s physical distress at the scene of the arrest.

“That's where he should have received medical attention, and he did not.” Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis said at a press conference.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts suggested that Gray may have been further injured while he was transported. Batts confirmed that the van stopped twice along the way and that on the second occasion Gray clearly verbalized that he has been injured.

“He says he needs a medic,” Batts said.

Yet no paramedics were summoned for more than 20 minutes, after the van arrived at the Western District police station and officers opened the back to discover that Gray was unconscious.

Batts further confirmed that Gray had not been strapped in with a seatbelt, as required by department regulations.

“No excuses,” Batts said.

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Batts emphasized that investigators are using witness accounts, video and everything else they can assemble that might help them establish exactly what happened from the very first moment to the very last.

He added that he was trying to be as forthcoming as possible, but was withholding some details for a reason likely to impart a chill to any cop who might have reason to worry.

“If somebody harmed Freddie Gray, we’re going to have to prosecute them,” Batts said.

Not that a serious or even fatal injury suffered by a prisoner in custody necessarily means trouble for the arresting officers.

Consider the case of a 46-year-old Baltimore man named Anthony Anderson who was slammed to the ground while being arrested in front of his family in 2012. He died moments afterwards.

An autopsy found that Anderson had suffered multiple fractured ribs and a lacerated spleen. The coroner deemed the death a homicide.

Yet, the officers were found blameless. That, even though witnesses agreed that one of them kicked Anderson.

In the moments immediately following Anderson’s arrest, the cops apparently thought he was feigning his injuries. His 20-year-old son, Anthony Jr., would later tell investigators, “After they slammed him, they threw the cuffs on him, saying that he didn’t want to go to jail because he was faking and all this because he didn’t want to go to jail. I’m like, ‘My father been in jail. That’s no problem with him going to jail.’”

Anderson's mother was also on the scene and she rushed over. The cops threatened to arrest her if she did not step back.

“They kept saying that they was going to lock my grandmother up and she kept telling them something’s wrong with him,” the son would tell investigators. “They said again, ‘Oh no, he’s just afraid to go to jail.’”

Anderson had by that time lost consciousness.

“Then another uniform cop pulled up and said ‘You need to call—call the ambulance,’” the son would recall to investigators.

Paramedics arrived soon afterwards, but the son was sure his father was beyond saving.

“I started seeing his eyes rolling back in his head and I knew he was dead,” the son would remember. “When somebody’s eyes roll back in their head and all, they’re dead.”`

But if Anderson had remained conscious, there is a good chance that the cops would have just kept believing that he was faking. That is likely what the cops in Staten Island thought when Erick Garner was crying out that he could not breathe. That is also likely what the other Baltimore cops thought when Freddie Gray cried out.

When a Baltimore man named Dondi Johnson suffered a fatal spine injury after being placed in a Baltimore police van without a seatbelt back in 2005, one officer said she was sure the prisoner was lying when he said he could not move. Another officer decided that Johnson was faking when he said, “Just take me to the hospital.”

The assumption that a prisoner must be faking and an accompanying indifference to the possibility that the distress might be genuine seems evidence of the effect police work can have on the soul.

The great majority of cops take the oath because they want to help people. But a corrosive cynicism can poison their initial sense of purpose.

In emergencies, even the most jaded, cops will still show remarkable bravery and selflessness, placing themselves in direst danger for the sake of strangers of whatever race.

And they keep going to work knowing that everything can turn bad in an instant. The cop who slammed Johnson to the ground still had a bullet nestled near his aorta from when a suspect he approached suddenly pulled a gun and shot him. The cop, Todd Strohman, later testified before the state legislature about the need for stricter gun control.

Yet in the dispiriting routine of collars for petty crimes, some cops can turn callous and assume the worst even if they are not inclined toward brutality.

As Batts said on Friday, much has yet to be learned about what is not shown on the cellphone video in the Gray case, about what happened immediately before Gray was arrested and immediately after he was loaded into the van.

On that second stop when Gray asked for a medic, the police picked up another prisoner. He will no doubt prove to be a critical witness to what the police did or did not do when Gray explicitly asked for medical help.

Davis made clear at the press conference that Gray should never have been placed in the van in the first place. The cops should have called for an ambulance instead. The paramedics would have been sure to immobilize his neck and back if there was any chance of a spinal injury. Gray might very well have survived.

All the cops should have needed to hear was that first cry of pain.