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Police Officer 'Bill of Rights' Blamed for Baltimore’s Information Blackout in Case of Freddie Gray’s Severed Spine

Baltimore's mayor blamed Maryland's "Law Enforcement's Officers Bill of Rights" for the lack of transparency in the case of a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody.
April 22, 2015, 10:10pm
Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP

Ten days after Baltimore cops crammed Freddie Gray into the back of a paddy wagon, there's still an information blackout about how exactly the 25-year-old black man ended up with a severed spine while in police custody. Initial attempts at transparency have been thwarted, leaving several gaping holes in the series of events that occurred after Gray's April 12 arrest.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake acknowledged the information gaps in the case at a press conference after Gray's death Sunday, saying officials had not yet been able to "fully engage" with all six officers involved in the arrest — all of whom have since been named and suspended without pay.

"The officers who were directly involved because of our Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights we have yet to fully engage those officers, and we will get to the bottom of it," the mayor said. "I am determined to make sure that we have as full investigation and we follow all of the rules and procedures so if there is a finding of wrongdoing that we have done everything possible to protect policy and procedures so we can hold those individual accountable."

Roughly 1,000 protesters and activists converged Wednesday in Baltimore at the site of Gray's arrest, voicing support for statements made this week by an attorney for Gray's family alleging that the police department has been involved in a cover-up from the onset.

Related: Video captures Baltimore police arresting and tasing woman recording them

Dayvon Love, the director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a Baltimore-based grassroots think tank, told VICE News that the continued mystery surrounding Gray's death highlights a system that is designed to protect officer's rights and make police accountability more difficult to achieve.

Love pointed out that protections afforded to police under the statewide Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights, or LEOBOR as it is commonly known, has led to the obfuscation of key information and testimony related to Gray's death.

Love was recently involved in an unsuccessful petition to Maryland's legislature to amend parts of the LEOBOR, which lays out the legal rights and protections afforded to officers during misconduct investigations, interrogations, and hearings, or when disciplinary action is initiated. At least 17 states have similar rules in place, and Love said Maryland's version is second only to Rhode Island in the strength of protections provided to officers.

Under Maryland's LEOBOR, officers are obliged to speak with supervisors if asked about a particular arrest or incident, but their statements are exempt from inclusion in any criminal investigation. Officers then have 10 days to hire an attorney before being required to make any more statements.

'It gives law enforcement time to hide certain information and construct a story that is palatable to the public.'

"It gives law enforcement time to hide certain information and construct a story that is palatable to the public and allow them to preserve people's jobs and so on," Love said.

Related: After Walter Scott killing, black lives matter movement calls for citizen oversight of police

There are still many blanks in the story of precisely how Gray, who, according to a police report, had a switchblade knife on him when he was arrested, sustained his injuries. Police say he "fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence," and was critically injured in the van while being taken to the local station. Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts later revealed that Gray, who is asthmatic, repeatedly asked for medical attention and an inhaler, which he did not receive.

The arrest was partially captured on cellphone footage, but even that fails to show exactly what transpired. In the video, Gray's legs appear limp as police carry him to a van. A family lawyer said Gray's spine was 80 percent severed when he arrived at the hospital's shock trauma unit.

The morning after Gray's death, the mayor and police commissioner held a press conference at police headquarters, promising that a thorough and transparent investigation would be followed by an independent review.

The mayor also acknowledged the difficulties in overcoming "decades of mistrust" between law enforcement and the city's more than 622,000 residents, nearly 65 percent of which are African American.

"I'm frustrated not only that we're here, but we don't have all the answers," Rawlings-Blake added. "I want to know why the officers pursued Mr. Gray. I want to know if the proper procedures were followed…. We still have questions."

Love said he believes the mayor "isn't lying when [she] says she doesn't know what happened" to Gray, but added that she has been "too reactive and not substantive enough" in her response. He noted that Rawlings-Blake made no efforts to go "on the record to talk about police brutality until this incident became a national spectacle."

"The mayor herself does not have access to the information of what happened [because of LEOBOR]," Love said, adding that he hopes "the national coverage will pressure the state legislature to do something."

On Wednesday, a Baltimore police union attorney rebuked the mayor's comments and claimed that four of the six officers involved in Gray's arrest gave voluntary, recorded statements on night of the incident. None of those testimonies have been made public.

"I don't understand how she can continually say they're not cooperating," Michael E. Davey, a police union attorney, told the Baltimore Sun. "They are. They did. And they're lucky they got those statements before I got involved."

Davey denied that LEOBOR had anything to do with Gray's case, saying instead that it was an issue of constitutional rights for officers 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," he said. "At no point when you're hired by a police department do you sign a waiver saying you've given up your constitutional rights."

The fate of the officers will be determined by a pending internal police investigation and a separate Department of Justice civil rights investigation. Announced Tuesday, the DOJ inquiry will bring together members of the FBI, the US attorney's office, and DOJ civil rights lawyers.

The six officers involved in Gray's arrest — Lt. Brian Rice, 41, Sgt. Alicia White, 30, Officer Garrett Miller, 26, Officer Edward Nero, 29, Officer William Porter, 25, and 45-year-old Officer Caesar Goodson — have all been suspended without pay and could face criminal charges pending the outcome of the investigations.

Related: Protesters say Ferguson police shooting doesn't reflect their nonviolent movement

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields