The Mysterious Death of Freddie Gray

When the Baltimore man was arrested, he was alive and well. By the time he reached a police station, he couldn't breathe or talk. What happened?

The Reverend Jamal Bryant leads a rally outside a Baltimore Police Department station during a march for Freddie Gray on April 21. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*

Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protesters taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.

Authorities can't say if there was a particularly good reason why police arrested Gray. According to the city, an officer made eye contact with Gray, and he took off running, so they pursued him. Though he'd had scrapes with the law before, there's no indication he was wanted at the time. And though he was found with a knife, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “We know that having a knife is not necessarily a crime.”

The police say Gray didn't resist arrest and that officers didn't use force, which seems to be mostly corroborated by video shot by bystanders. Gray seems to shout in pain, and his leg seems injured as officers drag him to a police van. (Someone off camera shouts, "His leg broke and y'all dragging him like that!") Gray also had asthma and requested his inhaler, but didn't get it. Yet it's not the leg or the asthma that killed him. Instead, it was a grave injury to his spinal cord. Gray's family said he was treated for three fractured vertebrae and a crushed voice box, the sorts of injuries that doctors say are usually caused by serious car accidents. The van made at least two stops before reaching the police station, but there's no footage to say what happened during the journey or at those stops.

It's a baffling conundrum. "None of the officers describe any use of force," Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said. "None of the officers describe using any force against Mr. Gray." And yet somehow Gray was fatally hurt while in police custody.

The lack of clear evidence in Baltimore is a reminder of just how unusual the case of Walter Scott was. The North Charleston, South Carolina, man was shot in the back by a police officer while running away, but a bystander caught the incident on video—debunking the official account in a police report. Officer Michael Slager has now been charged with murder. As my colleague Robinson Meyer wrote, society owes much to the brave bystanders who tape encounters like this, and their footage has gone a long way to helping achieve justice and to awakening the public to police brutality.

The obvious tie between the Gray and Scott cases, though, is that in both incidents police apprehended black men under questionable circumstances—Scott for a busted tail light, Gray for, well, it's unclear. In both cases, the black community feels its members were unfairly targeted by the local police

"I'm not saying Fred was an angel; whatever he did is now in the past. But the police already have made up their minds about who we are," Rudolph Jackson told The Baltimore Sun. "They figure every black person with their pants hanging down is a suspect, and they stop them without probable cause." That echoes complaints of African Americans around the nation, from Ferguson to Staten Island to Cleveland, about how they experience the police not as benevolent defenders of the peace but as an arbitrary menace, more likely to violate a citizen's rights than preserve them.

Six officers have been suspended with pay and placed on desk duty in the Gray case, and while the Baltimore Police Department didn't specify their races, the three officers in the clip arresting Gray all appear to be white. One thing that separates this case from, say, Ferguson or North Charleston is the demographics of those in power. It's true that whites are overrepresented in the Baltimore Police Department compared to the city's overall population, but black and white officers make up roughly equal proportions of the force. In addition, both Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts are African Americans.

Conflicts between the police and black citizens are often discussed as though the question is whether officers profess personal racism—a trap that even FBI Director James Comey, in an otherwise sympathetic and thoughtful speech on race and law enforcement, fell into. Troubled relationships like the one between Baltimore's black community and its police force, despite the presence of elected and appointed black leaders, show how racism is a systemic problem. It is the way people behave, rather than whether they manifest any personal animus. The issue is how the justice system as a whole treats black men.

The other obvious problem here is what happens when the police not only aren't being filmed but aren't even being watched. Despite movement to provide police with body cameras, many still don't wear them. There is much that's still unknown about Gray's fatal injuries, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion—based purely on what the mayor and others have said—that his injuries came at the hands of police officers in the van. “He did suffer a very tragic injury to his spinal cord, which resulted in his death," Rodriguez said at a news conference. "What we don’t know, and what we need to get to, is how that injury occurred.”

A common estimate is that 400 people die every year while being arrested—a number that CityLab's Richard Florida notes is probably an undercount—and six in 10 of those deaths are homicides, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. There are plenty of baffling cases that aren't ruled homicides, too. For example, in 2013, Jesus Huerta, a teenaged resident of Durham, North Carolina, died of a gunshot wound to the head while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. While that case elicited outrage, the district attorney said there wasn't evidence to disprove the police contention that Huerta shot himself with a gun an officer missed during a frisk.

Calming frayed nerves and ensuring justice in Gray's death will require figuring out what happened in that van. Rawlings-Blake has promised to do so, and the U.S. Department of Justice says it will also investigate whether officers violated Gray's civil rights. But if the police can't be trusted to get a man to jail without grave injury, can they be trusted to investigate this death effectively? And if they can't, who will?

* This story originally misstated the date of Freddie Gray's death. We regret the error.