'Sliver Of Hope' In Freddie Gray Case, Former Baltimore Police Chief Says

'Sliver Of Hope' In Freddie Gray Case, Former Baltimore Police Chief Says

9:28am Apr 23, 2015
Protesters rally after a march for Freddie Gray that ended in front of the Baltimore Police Department's Western District police station Tuesday. Gray, 25, died from spinal injuries on April 19, one week after being arrested.
Protesters rally after a march for Freddie Gray that ended in front of the Baltimore Police Department's Western District police station Tuesday. Gray, 25, died from spinal injuries on April 19, one week after being arrested.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

"Enough is enough!" hundreds of people chanted over and over in Baltimore Tuesday night, at a rally for Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody earlier this month. A federal civil rights inquiry was launched Tuesday.

"We've had some other problems with African-Americans dying in police custody and at the hands of police officers here in Baltimore city," says Leonard Hamm, a former commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department who served from 2004-2007.

Talking with NPR's David Greene, Hamm cites a "disconnect" between the police and the community. And he said that the city has to work to close that gap.

"This is possibly the spark that's going to ignite change, real change, in this city, and with the Baltimore Police Department," Hamm says.

He says that for that to happen, the city's investigation must be transparent — and if wrongdoing is found, "the police department has to stand up to the community and say, look, we messed up, we made a mistake."

Hamm says the ethnic diversity in Baltimore's government and other key roles provides "a sliver of hope" to the public.

Gray died Sunday of what a medical examiner says was a spinal cord injury. Other facts in the case have been hard to determine — but the focus has rested on the time Gray spent in a police van after he was arrested. Gray had run from police. But within an hour, he was taken to a hospital, and one week later, he was dead.

Six Baltimore police officers have been suspended pending as local and federal investigators look into Gray's death.

"The police department is focusing on that van ride — but at this point they don't know exactly what happened," Scott Calvert, who is covering the story in Baltimore for The Wall Street Journal, tells David.

In its recent session, Maryland's Legislature considered several bills that were meant to bring greater police accountability — but as member station WYPR in Baltimore reports, all of the measures died at the committee stage.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

About 400 people gathered in Baltimore last night at a rally for Freddie Gray.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Enough is enough. Enough is enough.

(APPLAUSE)

GREENE: Enough is enough - the voices of people who see something all too familiar. Gray was a young African-American man who died after a confrontation with police. We don't know all the facts in this case. We do know six Baltimore police officers have been suspended pending an investigation into Gray's death, and we know the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation. Let's begin with Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Calvert, who's covering the story in Baltimore. Scott, welcome to the program.

SCOTT CALVERT: Thanks. Good to be here.

GREENE: So as far as you know right now, what happened to Freddie Gray on April 12?

CALVERT: Well, there are a lot of questions that the police department says it can't answer. But what we do know is that he was arrested Sunday morning, April the 12, after allegedly running away from a police officer for no apparent reason. And less than an hour later, he was taken out of a police van unable to breathe and unable to talk, and the medical examiner has concluded that he died as a result of a spinal injury. But the question is what caused that spinal injury? And the police department is focusing on that van ride. But at this point, they don't know exactly what happened.

GREENE: So we do know, though, that six police officers have been suspended after Gray's death. I mean, anything we know about how they might have been involved in something, whatever happened in that vehicle?

CALVERT: A few of the officers who've been suspended were involved in the arrest itself, and they say that Freddie Gray was taken into custody without force or incident. There is video that was taken by a bystander which appears to show police officers dragging him to the van, although the deputy police commissioner has said he has seen other video that appears to show Freddie Gray helping himself up into the police van. So it's a little bit unclear why he was being dragged at that point in time.

He did tell police that he needed an inhaler right at the time of his arrest; he didn't have his and none was provided to him. And he later told police that he was having trouble breathing. This is when he was being transported in the van, and he wasn't given any medical attention at the time. And the police commissioner, Anthony Batts, said at a news conference that police probably should have called paramedics.

GREENE: Paramedics were not called. We know he was complaining about his health in the van and paramedics were not called. But beyond that, we just don't know what may have led to the condition he was in when he left that van.

CALVERT: Right. I mean, the deputy police commissioner, Jerry Rodriguez, said, you know, when he was placed in the van he was able to talk. He was upset. And when he was taken out of the van, he could not talk, and he could not breathe. And Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at the same news conference that it's clear that what happened happened inside of that van. There's no video in the back of the van where the arrestees are transported, so it's unclear exactly what happened.

GREENE: How has the community reacted to this, Scott?

CALVERT: There have been protests for several days running. And as the mayor put it, it's a very, very tense time for Baltimore city. She says she understands the community's frustration. There's a long history of mistrust between police in Baltimore and particularly the city's African-American community. The police commissioner said the same thing - you know, I hear the outrage and the concern and the fear. So they are trying to, they say, be as transparent as they possibly can, given the constraints of an ongoing active investigation. And the mayor said that, you know, she's encouraged that demonstrations have been peaceful so far and clearly doing their best to keep it that way.

GREENE: We've been talking to Scott Calvert, a Wall Street Journal reporter who's based in Baltimore. Scott, thanks very much.

CALVERT: Thanks, David.

GREENE: And let's bring another voice in here. It's Leonard Hamm. He's the former commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department. He served in that role from 2004 to 2007. He joins us on the line. Welcome to the program.

LEONARD HAMM: Thanks, David. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Scott Calvert right there describing tension right now in Baltimore because of what he says is distrust between the police and the African-American community. Can you help us understand this distrust?

HAMM: We have a situation here in Baltimore where there appears to be a disconnect between the community and the police department, especially with African-American young men and young women. We've had some other problems with African-Americans dying, you know, in police custody and at the hands of police officers here in Baltimore city. But this is possibly the spark that's going to ignite change, real change, in this city and with the Baltimore Police Department.

GREENE: You say this could be the spark.

HAMM: Mhm.

GREENE: We seem to know so little right now about exactly what happened. Do you think people will be patient to sort of learn the facts before they react?

HAMM: I think the department and the city - it has to be transparent. And if in fact we find that there were some things that weren't done properly on the side of police, the police department has to stand up to the community and say, hey, look, we messed up. We made a mistake.

GREENE: Do you see - based on what you know about the current Baltimore Police Department, do you see a department that will handle, you know, whatever this investigation concludes in a transparent way like that, in a way that might calm the community and prevent a big reaction and outrage?

HAMM: They have no choice but to handle it that way because Baltimore is not unlike other cities. If they don't, they're going to have some serious problems, serious problems in the street.

GREENE: What is the key, in your mind, when you say they're going to have to handle in that way?

HAMM: The key, in my mind, is that first of all you have to be thorough in what you do, but you have to be quick about it. I mean, you can't let this thing linger for a week, two weeks, you know, and use the excuse that we're trying to, you know, tie all the loose ends together.

GREENE: It sounds like a situation that we've heard about in other communities in recent months. I mean, are there issues with allegations of racial profiling, young black men being rounded up by police - is this some of the same issues that we become familiar with?

HAMM: Those are some of the issues. But what happens a little bit differently in Baltimore is that the diversity that we have in our government, the diversity that we have in our educational system, young people even though they're frustrated, African-Americans even though they're frustrated and they're angry, there is some hope that, you know, let me give these people a chance to try to work this stuff out. So what Baltimore presents is a sliver of hope. And I think that as long as people have some kind of hope, the destructive kind of demonstrations that we've seen in some other places will be curtailed.

GREENE: What little we do know right now is that Freddie Gray complained about needing an inhaler. Paramedics were not called during this trip in the police van. How are police trained to deal with people who need medical treatment like that while they're under arrest?

HAMM: David, it's simple. If a person needs medical attention, you get on the radio and you call for an ambulance. It's that simple. That's what they're trained to do. That's what they should have done.

GREENE: We've been speaking with Leonard Hamm. He's the former commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department. He served in that role from 2004 to 2007. Mr. Hamm, thanks so much for coming on the program. We appreciate your time.

HAMM: You're welcome. Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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