BALTIMORE (AP) — Slight and slender at just 5-feet 8-inches and 145 pounds, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was a warm, funny, generous figure in Baltimore’s predominantly poor and African American Sandtown community, his friends and relatives said.
The young man who died of traumatic spinal injury a week after his April 12 arrest used to give his hand-me-down clothes to younger children and crack jokes whenever anyone was having a bad day, they said.
But as demonstrators poured into Baltimore’s streets following Gray’s death, community members said Gray — who like many of his peers also had a criminal record — symbolizes the experiences of many black men in Baltimore, living in poverty and in fear of the police who patrol their neighborhoods.
“He was a typical Sandtown kid,” said Sean Price, who grew up there. “He wasn’t perfect but neither is anybody. This isn’t anything new. Freddie Gray is just a microcosm of what happens every day in Sandtown, in Baltimore.”
Gray was arrested April 12 after police “made eye contact” with him and another man in an area known for drug activity, police said, and both men started running. Gray was handcuffed and put in a transport van.
Exactly what happened in the van and how he was injured are still unknown. But he died a week later in a hospital of what police described as “a significant spinal injury.”
The six officers involved in the arrest have been suspended with pay. Attorney Michael Davey, whose firm contracts with the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, said five of the six gave voluntary statements. Davey said all six are under criminal investigation.
Demonstrators have protested peacefully against Gray’s death for several days and more protests were expected Wednesday evening.
Concrete barricades were erected in the afternoon near the Western District police station. Police described them as a precaution.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department said it will investigate to determine whether Gray’s civil rights were violated. Local authorities have promised to conduct a transparent investigation.
At a news conference Wednesday, Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 President Gene Ryan acknowledged a need “to improve the relationship between the police department and the community,” and said most police officers “are very professional, highly trained and self-motivated.”
The Sandtown neighborhood in West Baltimore surrounds blocks of red-brick public housing called the Gilmor Homes. Trees are sparse amid abandoned lots overgrown with grass and crumbling, burned-out row homes, their doors and windows boarded up.
James Brown, who lives across from the corner where Gray was arrested, said he saw Gray taken away in the police van. Brown said the community has many questions.
“But what I want to know is, why did they chase him?” he added.
As a boy, friends said, Gray loved to play sports, and was on the football team at Carver Vocational-Technical High School. Childhood friend William Stewart, who had known Gray for 20 years, said he “laughed all day and smiled all the time.
“He had that spark,” he said.
Gray also had several drug-related convictions and was scheduled to appear in court on a recent charge in May. In high-crime areas like Sandtown, residents say criminal records are not uncommon.
“He also had his troubles, but so does everybody,” Stewart said. “I have a criminal record. But if I’m walking down the street minding my own business and the police kill me, does that have anything to do with it?”
Danielle Hall, another friend of Gray’s, said the relationship between law enforcement and the neighborhood is so contentious that many believe it’s safer to run from police than stand still.
“People run every day from the police. Why wouldn’t you run when every time you turn you’re getting harassed? … Why stop when you already know what they’ll do to you? Rough you up, throw you on the ground?”
Police said Wednesday that investigators had met with the six suspended officers. Five provided statements, which police said would be turned over to the Baltimore state’s attorney.
The Baltimore police commissioner, mayor, state’s attorney and city council president are all African American. But racially charged tension between the police and Baltimore residents — roughly 63 percent black and 23 percent below the poverty line, according to 2013 census statistics — persists.
In 2010, the city settled a long-running lawsuit alleging improper arrests. Sonia Kumar, an ACLU attorney, said at the time it was filed roughly 30 percent of arrestees were released without charges. Today, that number is closer to 4 percent.
But Kumar said work remains to be done.
“There have been countless conversations in the past several years about the relationships between police and the residents of Baltimore,” Kumar said. “In virtually every conversation there’s recognition of a profound mistrust and the need to correct it.”
Protesters in Baltimore took to the streets in 2013 and 2014 over three other deaths in police custody. None of the officers in those cases were charged.
“The police are supposed to protect and serve,” said Davon Crawford, 28, as he watched a crowd gather on the site of Gray’s arrest Tuesday evening. “But who are they protecting? If you’re here protecting me, why would you hurt me?”