What happened to Freddie Gray? Former cops and arrestees shed light on the question tearing Baltimore apart

Nobody knows just how Freddie Gray’s spinal cord ended up severed in the back of a police transport wagon on April 12. Nobody knows why the cops are stationed behind barriers.

The members of the thin blue line space themselves about five paces apart along the barricade surrounding the Western District police station. It’s 5 p.m. on April 22, drizzling rain as a cold front comes through Baltimore, and there are network news trucks set up on corners all around the neighborhood of low-income housing and abandominiums.

Police say nothing when asked why the office is barricaded. They say nothing when asked if there is a sergeant or other supervisor who is authorized to speak. They say nothing when asked any question until, 10 minutes later, an especially charming photographer named Noah Scialom, a City Paper contributor, gets one female officer to point the way north for a disoriented media colleague.

Otherwise, the silence extends up and down the line. City Paper reached out to police officers through official channels and outside of them, looking for police to tell us what it’s like to be police this week and what is happening inside their department. With one exception (who had no time to talk), we heard only from retired and estranged cops. It seems that nobody in the beleaguered department wants to discuss how they are feeling as the national media descend on Baltimore looking for footage and a compelling narrative.

The CNN security crew is posted up next to the convenience store at Mount and Riggs, five beefy white guys with gray beards and badges around their necks like detectives, hired to protect the national reporters from the neighbors of West Baltimore. They have been here since 2 p.m. They have no idea why the cops barricaded the district office, they say. The police liaison who they work with is nowhere to be seen.

On this night protesters march down North Mount Street toward the line of cops.“No justice, no peace,” they chant. “All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray.”

In the crowd, a man named Davon holds a sign made of battered, warped plywood he ripped from the porch of a nearby vacant house. Sharpied on it are the words “No Justice, No Peace,” and at the bottom, “Fuck the Police.” Near the top is a crude drawing of the crude hand gesture.

“They don’t care about us. They lock us up for nothing,” Davon, who gives a reporter his full name but later withdraws use of his last, says. He is a larger guy in his late 20s. A little gold in the grill. Not fat but with a rounded face and wild afro. His criminal record since 2006 includes a murder charge (which was dropped), drugs, open container, failure to obey a lawful order, eluding police, carrying an illegal handgun (he was found guilty and served three years’ probation), and an arrest for illegal fireworks and pesticides, for which he was also found guilty. The latest drug-possession charge is pending. He has experience with the police. But out here at the Freddie Gray protest in front of the Western District, his friends gather and tell the story of Dawan Hawkins, a friend they grew up with.

Police shot him on Saturday, April 18, the day before Freddie Gray died. Hawkins’ friends say the story they heard was that Hawkins bailed out of a car police were chasing on the 2700 block of Baker Street, about a mile from here, and that the police officer says he ran. “He is overweight,” Davon says. “He can’t run.” According to an email update from the department, Police Officer David Bodine, a four-year veteran, shot Hawkins. He does not have any prior officer-involved shootings. The police have not yet explained the circumstances of the shooting.

“They won’t even let us into the hospital” to see how he’s doing, Davon says.

Hawkins sister, Chimere Lewis, says Hawkins was shot seven times and remains in stable but critical condition. “My understanding from the news, they said he pulled out a gun and they shot him,” she says. “Then it says that he brandished a gun.” She is skeptical. Lewis acknowledges that Hawkins has been in trouble in the past, but she says police can’t be trusted because they plant evidence and tell lies.

Hawkins was charged with counts of assault and illegal possession of a handgun on April 25, court records show. This case lists his height as 5 feet, 8 inches, his weight 185. Previously he has been charged with driving without a license, drug possession, having an illegal handgun, and selling counterfeit goods. He was first charged with eluding police in 2006, while driving on a learner’s permit.

Davon and his friends say police plant guns and drugs on them. They say they don’t know what the motive could be, besides fucking with them.

That might sound unbelievable. But former city cops say they would not put it past some of their former colleagues.

“This is a police department that is geared toward Gestapo-type tactics,” says Malik Jenkins-Bey, a 10-year department veteran who left in 2010. “I learned about that down in the Holocaust Museum when I was in the academy.”

As a cadet Jenkins-Bey and his class of police recruits were taken on a field trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. “We really do hope they make the connection between now and then,” David G. Klevan, a museum educator, told The Sun at the time. “We hope they’ll think about it later. I personally want them to think, ‘What happens when a whole population is defined as criminal?’”

Jenkins-Bey says many of the men and women he worked with did not take the lesson. Routine violations of the General Orders—the policy bible that all officers are supposed to follow to the letter—beget sloppy policing and a culture of callous laxity.

The General Orders are just the first thing to fall.

“What police do all over the city is they deliberately violate the law,” Jenkins-Bey says. “They jump out of the car, they walk up to people and start touching them, reaching into their pockets.”

Police can legally stop a person this way under a Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio. But only if they can articulate a reasonable suspicion that the person they’re questioning is committing or about to commit a crime—something that appears to be lacking in the arrest report of Freddie Gray, for example.

“A lot of times in that department, they do things wrong first, and then backtrack later and do things with documents,” Jenkins-Bey says.

Why do things this way? “Because stats, statistics, numbers are what is rewarded,” Jenkins-Bey says. “If I get 50 percent more traffic tickets than anyone else, I’m known as a performer. Even if I never bring in any drugs in a high drug area, it doesn’t matter. A police officer in some ways is seen as an independent contractor: The more arrests I make, the better I look.”

Jenkins-Bey, a by-the-book officer who grew up in the city and patrolled and supervised police in his old neighborhood in East Baltimore, where his mother still lives, cites the department’s General Orders reflexively when asked about what could have happened to Gray, who appeared to be conscious and ambulatory when he was loaded into the transport wagon, but was near death 45 minutes later when he came out.

Two other former city officers who left the department also cited the police manual.

“The General Orders clearly state all prisoners ought to be secured. Locked in, tied down” when placed inside the transport wagon,” Jenkins-Bey says.“They have seat belts inside. The police have acknowledged that Freddie Gray was not wearing a seat belt when we was detained.

“Policy is to do that,” he continues. “What is the common practice? The common practice is to throw them in the back of the wagon and get to the next call.”

“The seat belt is very loose,” according to Joseph Crystal, a former officer who says he was hounded out of the Baltimore Police department last year after blowing the whistle on fellow officers who beat up a drug suspect.

Neither of these officers has direct knowledge of any policy or practice of roughing up prisoners on the ride to Central Booking, they say.

Crystal, who is Hispanic, is suing the department for not protecting him from the officers who refused to aid him when he called for backup and infamously placed a dead rat under his car’s windshield wiper, says some of the older police he worked with may have talked about events from decades before. “Way back, back in the olden days,” he says, “the term I may have heard would be ‘rough ride.’”

Michael A. Wood, who is white and retired from the Baltimore Police as a sergeant in 2014, wrote an email. “I know you have heard stories in the past of things like brake checks, drop offs, bumpy roads, et cetera, so you know that has occurred,” he writes. “Nothing can realistically change the possibility of someone exhibiting the callous behavior of using that vehicle as a weapon against the helpless or to stomp a boot into the neck of someone who flees.”

Rough rides are a long tradition in Baltimore. In 1992 Kenneth B. Mumaw, a white man then in his 60s, was falsely arrested and banged up in the transport van. The arrest and rough ride were in retaliation. He sued and won a $100,000 settlement.

In 1997 Jeffrey Alston’s spinal cord was severed during a ride in the paddy wagon after a group of white officers pulled him over for speeding in his BMW. Alston, who was African-American, survived but was left quadriplegic. He sued the city and won a $39 million jury award, which was settled for $6 million in 2004. Alston died about eight years ago.

More recently, two freelance photographers who have worked for this newspaper were shaken up in separate incidents.

Noah Scialom, the charming photographer, was arrested for “disobeying a lawful order” on the sidewalk outside an illegal party in 2013. “They tackled me inside the wagon,” he recalls during the march for Freddie Gray.

In June 2012, Chrissy Abbott, also a City Paper contributing photographer, was arrested at her house by city police, who also busted her husband and a friend who was taking pictures of the couple interacting with police during a party. Abbott is suing the police, so on advice of her lawyer is limiting her public statements.

“Basically what I can say is that the whole arrest, and paddy wagon ride, was dehumanizing,” Abbott writes in an email. “The ride definitely made me feel like cargo that no one cared about. I was handcuffed behind my back and pushed into the back of the van. They did not strap me in and in fact, in the police officer’s deposition they admitted that there were no straps. I was thrown into one side of the van and Jake and Pat were put into the other side, with some sort of divider between us in the middle of the van. The driver drove recklessly—at least it felt like it. He seemed to be braking short, taking fast turns, driving fast. I was sliding all over the back of the van, banging into the walls because I didn’t have any way to brace myself since my hands were behind my back. I’m pretty small—5’0” and alone on the one side of the van, with nothing but metal all around me.”

Jake Masters, who decided during this ordeal to ask Abbott to marry him, is not suing because he thinks his wife has the stronger case. He says he and their friend Patrick Hoey were bruised up during the ride. “They drive like 500 to 1,000 feet and they slam on the brakes,” he says. “You slide into the bulkhead behind the driver, either that or the partition wall. The way they’re driving, very erratically, just basically taking out aggression.”

Masters, who has no criminal record before or since this event, says he and Hoey were beaten further when they reached the Northern District office. “Pat was head-butted by an officer,” Masters says. “He got a black eye. The same officer also slammed my head down on a bench so I thought my eyeball was going to pop out of my head. Then they hog-tied me.”

Hoey confirms Masters’ memory. “In the report they said I got my black eye by smashing my own face against the cell door,” he says. “They originally charged me with breaking the cell door.”

Masters says he was worried about Abbott. “They had ripped her dress . . . they were really beating the crap out of us. I was really wondering what they were gonna do to her,” he says.

The police then transported Masters and Hoey to a hospital, Masters says. If this is so, it would be a violation of the General Orders which, according to Jenkins-Bey, specify that prisoners who require medical attention be taken in an ambulance.

The ride to the hospital was not as rough as the one to the district station, Masters says, though it still included no seat belt. As they were loading him in, he says he kept trying to turn around to get the officers’ badge numbers. “They pushed me in and slammed the door on my foot,” he says.

The handcuffs were so tight, Masters says, he lost feeling in his hands for three months afterward. The men were placed in Central Booking on a Friday night, in a 10-by-10-foot room with 13 other prisoners. “It was flooded,” he says, “with a strange puddle coming in under the door.”

The people in the cell “were the nicest people I met all night. They were in for drug charges and stabbing people and things like that. They asked what we did, and we’re like, ‘We had a party.’”

He says the other prisoners had a good laugh about the white guys who were in jail for a party.

Hoey remembers one of the fellow jail inmates said he had been arrested for having some weed. “The cop had taken the butt of a shotgun and smashed him in the face with it,” Hoey says. “The bones around his eye socket were broken.”

Masters, who grew up in Prince George’s County and plays in a punk band called Skull Theft, says he gets the irony. “If we were black we’d probably be either dead or in a lot worse shape,” he says.

The bad policing begets more bad policing as frustrated cops re-arrest the real bad guys and city juries let them go. “You hardly ever see a police officer take the stand in court anymore,” Jenkins-Bey says. “They can’t do it. Every criminal knows that if you get a serious charge, take a jury trial. They know that most of those people [in the jury pool] have had a negative interaction with the police department.”

Commissioner Batts has promised that the investigation into Gray’s death will be completed and forwarded to State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby on May 1. That is significantly faster than the typical use-of-force investigation. The city currently has more than two dozen pending, several of them more than a year old. The General Order regarding these investigations says the initial report is due in 90 days. In an April 20 press conference, Batts pledged to “take corrective action wherever and whenever necessary.”

“More than likely they already have the outcome,” Crystal says. “When I’m investigating, I usually can’t say when I’m going to be done. I do it as fast as I can.”

Crystal is skeptical that “corrective actions” Batts may take will have any effect. He says he heard that all officers were made to sign the General Order requiring that suspects be seat-belted into the transport wagon.

“It’s easy for them to say they’ll get to the bottom of it,” Crystal says. “But they have previous opportunities to do the right thing, they haven’t stepped up and done it.”

Back on Riggs Avenue, the crowd is chanting at the silent officers. “All six!” they chant, speaking of the six police who were involved in Gray’s arrest, all of whom are now suspended with pay, five of whom have given voluntary statements about their actions.

The one who declined to has the right, under the U.S. Constitution, to remain silent. They have the right under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to delay their statement to superior officers for 10 days.

As protesters filled the streets and the U.S. Justice Department said it was opening a civil rights investigation of the department, the police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, was advertising a golf outing. Gene Ryan, the union president, likened the protesters to a “lynch mob” because they are demanding the six be arrested and charged with murder.

On April 14, as the news of Gray’s condition was publicized, Ryan announced to his membership how “pleased and very proud” he was that the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights remained unchanged by the state’s legislature, despite pressure from some city officials and many activists. “Unfortunately, those that oppose us have vowed to continue that fight . . . and we welcome that challenge,” Ryan wrote on the department’s website. 

The union’s lawyer, Michael E. Davey, scolded Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and said the department was lucky to get statements from the five officers before he got involved. “Police officers, like any other individual or citizen who is being investigated for a criminal act, have a constitutional right not to speak to the police,” Davey told The Sun.

Wood, the sergeant who retired in 2014, actually wrote and marketed an unofficial handbook for police promotional tests, as well as a novel about a psychopathic cop who secretly kills drug dealers. Like Crystal and Jenkins-Bey, he says the initial chase and arrest of Freddie Gray were likely improper.

“Running is not reasonable suspicion to make a stop,” Wood says.

Ryan told reporters what he meant by “lynch mob.” “When you’re trying to put somebody in jail before all the facts [are presented] and the investigation hasn’t been completed, that’s wrong,” he told WBAL reporters.

Wood emailed City Paper to challenge the president of the union he used to belong to. “You cannot say that when a significant portion of your job entails that you do precisely that,” he wrote. “The FOP president should also be smart enough to know that those acting out and loudly pronouncing such things are hardly representative of a community who just wants black lives to matter as much as police lives matter. The FOP cannot be calling this a lynch mob or outright defend the officers who had custody of Mr. Gray. Here is what the BPD and FOP statement should have been and still should be:

“'From the evidence currently known, it appears has [sic] though at a minimum the BPD is responsible for the safety of Mr. Gray while he was in our custody and we failed Mr. Gray, his family, the community, and the law enforcement profession. This tragic event will be investigated thoroughly by independent investigators and federal oversight is welcomed and encouraged. All of the findings of the investigation will be made public upon completion and what can be stated factual will be stated when it is known. The only thing we can do at this time is ensure our complete compliance with the investigation and call for our officers and the public to come forward with any information known about this case. Once the facts are known all applicable criminal charges, departmental charges, policy changes, and training issues will be carried out. We express our regret and I remind the community and our officers that expressing empathy for the perceptions and stresses of others is truly being heroic.'”

Five blocks east of the barricaded Western District police station on Mount Street, a man is standing in front of his midblock rowhouse watching the stragglers march by. Wayne Burton is a middle-aged African-American man in shades and a sweat suit with a designer label.

At first, he says he can’t take sides.

“They should do something with some of these crooked cops,” Burton says. “I feel sorry for the young brother. He had a long life to look forward to. But it was cut short.

“All I can says is leave it up to God, or talk to the mayor so something gets done.”

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