Did a misunderstanding kill Freddie Gray?

During my tenure at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, I met a lot of Freddie Grays. Doing research on younger inmates, I often visited the Federal prisons in Cumberland, Maryland and Beckley, West Virginia where many of those convicted of a serious felony in the Federal court in Baltimore were sent. Like Gray, most had a lengthy arrest record and had served time before. From 2007, when he was 18, up to March 20, three weeks before his death at age 25, Gray had been arrested 18 times. Usually, he was arrested for simple drug possession or possession with intent to distribute drugs, but there’s also a mixed bag of assaults, burglaries, illegal gambling and trespass. His rap sheet reads like that of thousands of other street level drug dealers; he was a career criminal.

It may be Gray was working his territory, selling drugs, when he caught the eye of some cops patrolling the area on bikes. He ran, and they chased him. Two blocks away, they caught him and saw he had a knife. He gave up without a fight. But Gray also had asthma and he had just run two blocks. He even requested his inhaler, but he didn’t get it. It’s not hard to imagine the cops on the scene saw his distress as an example of another punk acting up, making their job harder by going limp and forcing them to drag him to the police van while a hostile crowd jeered. The arresting officers were pissed off and so Freddie Gray had, from their point of view, earned a rough ride. It ended up killing him.

Despite the charges that have now been filed against the six officers involved, it’s unlikely they meant for Gray to die. What they wanted was for Gray to return to the streets a little worse for the wear. They knew that Freddie Gray was going to be back, probably within hours. They wanted him to remember and hopefully tell his colleagues on the street that being a jerk would just cause you more grief. Anyone who has worked around law enforcement or corrections, reading this story, can recall a similar incident in their own department or agency. What at the time seems like business as usual on the street or in the cell block goes very wrong because something about it is very unusual. The suspect or inmate is seriously mentally ill, or has a health problem, is strung out or panicking, or whatever else is pushing them in a way that is not obvious to officers who think they are dealing with a routine take down.

Most people don’t think much about the fact that, in some people’s lives, take downs and other use of force is a routine part of their job. Like other jobs, these have rules and norms of their own. How much force is too much? What is an acceptable level of resistance? How much risk of bodily harm should you have to run when you just want to get through your shift in one piece? These are the sort of assumptions and expectations that make up the culture of policing and of street life. Freddie Gray’s story is already on the narrative arc that inevitably leads to a debate about whether we should blame the culture of policing or the culture of the streets for his death and the rioting that has followed.

This final turn in the discussion is often a dead end because blaming the culture begs the essential question; if the “culture” is driving events, what is driving the culture? Cultures don’t fall from the sky, they are constructed over time by people adapting to their physical and social environment. The solution is not to blame the culture of policing or the streets. It is to alter the patterns of the culture of both so the divisions between them are healed. In Healing Corrections, the concept of cultures, how they work, and especially how they can be changes is a central theme.

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