The Justice Department announced this week that it is opening a criminal investigation into the death of a suspect who died from fatal spinal cord injuries while in police custody. Although Baltimore police officers claim that they did not use force against the suspect, witnesses and cell phone footage reveal officers dragging the suspect as he screamed in pain. The Justice Department has already been conducting a review of the Baltimore Police Department after the city paid nearly $6 million in court judgments and settlements involving over 100 lawsuits alleging police misconduct since 2011.
At 8:39 a.m. on April 12, a Baltimore police officer made eye contact with two individuals standing at a street corner who immediately fled. Officers pursued the individuals and apprehended one of them. According to the police, 25-year-old Freddie Gray surrendered without requiring the use of force as another officer aimed a Taser at Gray but did not deploy it. After restraining him, Officer Garrett Miller allegedly found a switchblade inside Gray’s pants pocket.
Witnesses assert that the arresting officers used excessive force to arrest Gray and refused to give him medical treatment. After watching the officers sitting on Gray’s back while handcuffing him, a bystander named Kiona Mack took out her cellphone and recorded a video of officers dragging Gray into the back of a police van as he screamed in agony.
“They had him in a crab-like position, where his legs were bent back and his arms,” another witness recalled. “He was handcuffed, and at this point, they had knees in his back and his head.”
Two minutes after police arrested him, Gray reportedly asked for medical attention including an inhaler to help him breathe. Although the videos show Gray dragging his feet and screaming in pain, he appeared responsive and could still speak. A few minutes after driving away from the scene, an officer asked the driver to pull over to finish paperwork.
During this stop, Gray was placed in leg irons. Roughly ten minutes later, the police van received a request to pick up another prisoner. The other prisoner was placed inside the van, but a metal barrier prevented the second prisoner from making physical contact with Gray.
By 9:24 a.m., Gray was no longer responsive and had difficulty breathing. Police called for an ambulance to transport Gray to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Shock Trauma Center. Suffering from damage to his spinal cord including three cracked vertebrae, Gray slipped into a coma. On April 13, Gray underwent surgery to repair his spine, which had reportedly been 80 percent severed. He survived for seven days before passing away on the morning of April 19.
Baltimore Police officers Caesar Goodson, Garrett Miller, Edward Nero, William Porter, Lt. Brian Rice, and Sgt. Alicia White have been placed on paid administrative leave after the incident. Five of these six officers have provided statements to the Baltimore police regarding their involvement in Gray’s arrest, but the sixth officer whose name has not been released refused to give a statement.
The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office has already begun conducting a review of the Baltimore Police Department after The Baltimore Sun revealed that the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in over 102 lawsuits alleging police misconduct since 2011. Earlier this week, the Department of Justice opened an investigation to specifically determine whether Gray’s civil rights were violated during his arrest.
“The Department of Justice has been monitoring the developments in Baltimore, Md., regarding the death of Freddie Gray,” stated DOJ spokeswoman Dena Iverson. “Based on preliminary information, the Department of Justice has officially opened this matter and is gathering information to determine whether any prosecutable civil rights violation occurred.”