Although Freddie Gray was rendered comatose in Baltimore police custody, all six police officers involved deny using or witnessing any force during Mr. Gray’s fatal encounter with the police. And yet a bystander’s video of the arrest depicts Mr. Gray, flanked by officers and screaming in pain, while someone yells that Gray’s leg is broken and that the police should stop dragging him. Another witness reports that he heard Mr. Gray shouting, “You’re hurting my neck! You’re hurting my neck! Get your knee out my back!” Before Mr. Gray was taken into police custody, he was a seemingly healthy 25 year-old; when he arrived at the police station, he could not talk or breathe. On its way to the police station, the van carrying Gray made at least two stops, but what happened during the journey or at those stops remains a mystery. We know that Mr. Gray’s pleas for medical care were ignored and that he was essentially hogtied (with handcuffs and leg irons) in the back of the van, without a seatbelt and with what appeared to be a broken leg. And we know the result: yet another black man was killed by police officers. An autopsy showed that Mr. Gray’s neck was broken and his spinal cord was 80% severed.
As Baltimore rages and many media outlets shift focus to vilify the Baltimore protesters, an important problem should not get lost in the mix: there has been a complete breakdown of trust between law enforcement and much of society, particularly in black, urban communities, and that rupture cannot be fixed without a restoration of trust. But to do that, there needs to be transparency and accountability, rather than the police officers’ “code of silence” that so often takes hold after events such as this. It simply strains credulity when six police officers claim complete ignorance of how Mr. Gray was injured while in their care. So a central question we must ask ourselves is how can we as a society imagine tearing down the “blue wall” – the unwritten code of loyalty that says officers must protect their own, at the cost of accountability and transparency?
One place to start is to demand that egregious police abuses be vigorously investigated, in a manner similar to comparable civilian crimes. Imagine, for example: six street gang members take a rival into their van, and when they dump him from the van, he is in a coma, his neck is broken, and he dies soon afterwards. There are certain basic principles that law enforcement would follow in investigating this murder. For starters, I’m sure all can agree that the murder investigation would need to be conducted by someone other than the suspects’ fellow gang members. Moreover, any investigator worth his salt would immediately separate the suspects, so that they could not coordinate an alibi or a benign explanation of the injuries. But these two most basic and logical principles are not followed when a suspect dies due to questionable police shootings, police officers’ refusal to allow necessary medical care, or police brutality, and this lapse allows for abuse. Mr. Gray’s demise differs only from that of the imagined gang victim in that his injuries occurred at the hands of police officers. Although Gray was injured in police custody on April 12, 2015, the involved officers continued to work together until April 20 (when they were suspended with pay), and as of April 21, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts could only promise that a thorough and transparent investigation would take place, while admitting that investigators still did not even have the basic information of when and how Mr. Gray was injured. Under such circumstances, the “blue wall” seems impenetrable, and Baltimore City responds in fury.