BALTIMORE — Freddie Gray was apparently not buckled into a seat in the back of a police van while being transported following his arrest, a police spokesman said Friday amid wide-ranging speculation over what happened to leave the Baltimore man with a broken back.
The statement from Capt. Eric Kowalczyk comes two days after a police union attorney spoke of the possibility that the injuries occurred during a “rough ride,” a frequently claimed practice in which police vehicles are deliberately driven in such a way to cause injury to suspects.
At least two suspects have won court cases against the city after being left paralyzed in such rides over the last decade or so, The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday.
Speaking to The Associated Press, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said Gray “wasn’t wearing a seat belt and that’s part of our investigation.”
“It’s our responsibility to make sure people are safely transported, especially if their hands are behind their back,” he told the AP on Thursday.
Gray died Sunday, one week after Baltimore police arrested him.
At some point, he suffered a severe spinal cord injury. His family said his voice box was crushed and his neck snapped before he slipped into a coma and died.
Meanwhile, anger and irritation over the incident and the police response to it continued to grow ahead of a major rally that organizers vowed would “shut this city down on Saturday.”
“The people are demanding immediate arrests, immediate end to the protracted investigation, and immediate end to the stonewalling,” said Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice.
But he and other officials vowed the protests would be peaceful — much as they were Thursday night despite a few scuffles and two detentions.
“No one has come to try and burn Baltimore down,” another protest organizer, the Rev. Tim Sutton, told reporters Friday.
Police first encountered Gray on April 12 as they patrolled an area known for crime and drug activity. When Gray saw them, authorities said, he started running.
Gray was arrested after police found what they said was a switchblade on him. An attorney for Gray’s family has said the knife was a pocket knife of legal size.
One video of Gray’s arrest shows officers dragging him to a police van, his legs dangling limply behind him.
“His leg look broke!” a bystander yells as a witness captures the arrest on a cell phone video.
That witness, who only wants to be identified as Kiona, said she knew Gray as a joker and a ladies’ man. But that day, he said only one thing to her.
“When I ran up the street and seen him, the first thing I asked him was he OK because I heard him screaming,” Kiona said. “He didn’t never say yes or no, he just said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and just was yelling.”
It’s not clear whether Gray was injured during the arrest or during the van ride, but police union attorney Michael Davey said he believed the injury occurred during the ride.
“Our position is something happened in that van,” he said. “We just don’t know what.”
Gray’s family attorney and protesters said police didn’t have any probable cause to chase him but did so only because he was “running while black.”
Davey said officers had every right to give chase.
“There is a Supreme Court case that states that if you are in a high-crime area, and you flee from the police unprovoked, the police have the legal ability to pursue you, and that’s what they did,” he said.
“In this type of an incident, you do not need probable cause to arrest. You just need a reasonable suspicion to make the stop.”
His family has not yet seen the autopsy report, attorney William Murphy said.
The medical examiner’s office told CNN it could take up to 90 days to release the report, which is customary.
But community leaders accused the police department of stonewalling the investigation.
“If the tables were turned and a police officer in Baltimore city had his spine broken and his back broken, you better believe that the report would be out in one day, you better believe that arrests would be made all over Baltimore, indictments for murder would come down and men would be dragged from their homes,” Shabazz said.
Andrew O’Connell, an attorney for the Gray family, told CNN that “police have a lot of questions that need to be answered.”
“What was the reasonable suspicion? Why were they arresting our client?” he said.
“He had no weapon in his hand. He was committing no crime, and he wasn’t hurting anybody. The police had no reasonable suspicion to stop or arrest him,” the attorney said.
While Baltimore police say five of the six officers involved in the arrest have provided statements to investigators, the department has not released details of what the officers said or how Gray might have suffered the fatal injury.
The police department said it is investigating what happened and will turn over its finding to the state attorney’s office in a week.
“As with any criminal investigation, detectives will continue to pursue the evidence wherever it leads, for as long as it takes.”
The Justice Department is investigating whether Gray’s civil rights were violated during the April 12 arrest.
And Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she “absolutely” believes an outside investigation is needed, especially given the city’s dark history of police misconduct.
According to The Baltimore Sun, the city has paid about $5.7 million over the past four years to settle more than 100 cases of allegations of police wrongdoing.
Police didn’t admit fault in any of the cases. The police union said in a statement Wednesday that the reason for the settlements was simple: City officials believe lawsuits are too costly.
Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm said he was disturbed by video of the arrest.
“What I see is a person in distress, and what should have happened is at that point, they should have called for medical attention to help him out,” he told CNN’s “New Day.”
Hamm led the department from 2004 to 2007. He said he was surprised and disappointed by what has happened.
“I thought we were better than that,” he said. “I thought we were better trained than that.”
A wake will be held Sunday for Gray, with a memorial service and funeral following on Monday.