News & Politics

The Baltimore Police Department's Insane Explanation For Why Freddie Gray Is Dead

Do they actually expect anyone to believe this?

I can only imagine the kind of siege mentality that prevails within the Baltimore Police Department right now. Not only are the city's residents protesting daily (and on one night those protests turned violent), but reporters from around the country are now examining the force's less-than-stellar record when it comes to cases of abuse and brutality, and who knows what they'll find. There's little doubt that some time soon the city's leadership will demand investigations, commissions, or some kind of effort that could lead to serious reform of the department. At a time like this, it may be understandable if the police brass isn't quite thinking straight. Which would be one explanation for the story that they presented to The Washington Post:

A prisoner sharing a police transport van with Freddie Gray told investigators that he could hear Gray "banging against the walls" of the vehicle and believed that he "was intentionally trying to injure himself," according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.

The prisoner, who is currently in jail, was separated from Gray by a metal partition and could not see him. His statement is contained in an application for a search warrant, which is sealed by the court. The Post was given the document under the condition that the prisoner not be named because the person who provided it feared for the inmate's safety.

The document, written by a Baltimore police investigator, offers the first glimpse of what might have happened inside the van. It is not clear whether any additional evidence backs up the prisoner's version, which is just one piece of a much larger probe.

I'm going to choose my words carefully here, because I have no direct evidence in this case to contradict this story. But ... do the Baltimore police actually expect anyone to believe this?

I suppose it's possible that Gray, overcome with anger at being arrested, could have slammed himself into the side of the van so hard as to sever his own spine. But when I say "possible," I mean that in the same sense that it's possible that I could jump off my roof, do a quintuple somersault in the air, then land, uninjured, in perfect balance perched on the radio antenna of my car, standing on my nose. You could probably come up with an explanation in which that event did not actually violate the laws of physics. So it's possible.

But it's also possible—and just a smidge more likely—that the cops used some of the means of persuasion at their disposal to convince this unnamed person to say he heard a bunch of banging in the back of the van. And it isn't as though we have to search too far to find a more likely explanation for what happened to Freddie Gray. As The Baltimore Sun reported, there have been multiple cases in recent years of the city's police inflicting "rough rides" on people in custody, tossing them in the back of a van without a seatbelt, then careening around the streets and stopping short so the prisoner is hurled through the compartment of the van. In at least two cases before Gray's, suspects subjected to a rough ride by Baltimore police sustained spinal injuries that left them paralyzed.  

If that's what happened to Gray, it wouldn't be surprising if Baltimore police thought they could get away with claiming that he did it to himself, no matter how implausible such an explanation is for the injuries that killed him. After all, it wouldn't be the first or even the thousandth time that cops claimed that injuries a prisoner sustained were actually self-inflicted. He fell down. He banged his head on the car door. He jumped into my fist. They might also look to the 2014 case in Louisiana of Victor White, who died after being shot while in police custody after being arrested for possessing marijuana.

Despite the fact that White was in the back of a squad car, with his hands cuffed behind his back, and had already been searched by police, they claimed that he had hidden a gun that police failed to find, took it out, and shot himself in the chest. While his hands were cuffed behind his back. What's so stunning about Victor White's case isn't just that the police would offer such a fantastical explanation for why he ended up dead, but that it worked: White's death was ruled a suicide.

If a police force elsewhere can tell that story in the case of a suspect who died in their custody and get away with it, why can't the Baltimore police say that Freddie Gray severed his own spine by slamming himself into the side of a van? After all, it's possible.

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success. Follow him on Twitter: @paulwaldman1

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