On Wednesday, the Washington Post obtained a Baltimore Police Department document, which states that a prisoner in the vehicle transporting Freddie Gray heard Gray “banging against the walls” and “intentionally trying to injure himself.” The Post was given permission to publish the information, provided that the name of the witness remained anonymous, yet the newly-released details counter previous reports about the events leading up to Gray’s death. What is consistent, however, is police departments’ selective release of information that paints people injured or killed by police in a bad light — and mainstream media’s decision to buy into it.
Since Gray’s death, BPD’s missteps in arresting him have been well-documented. In widely-publicized videos of the arrest, Gray yells in pain as three officers drag him to their van. They refused to give Gray, an asthmatic, an inhaler. They didn’t put his seatbelt on. And sometime between his arrest and hospital admission, Gray’s voice box was crushed and his spinal cord severed.
But of all the documents compiled during the course of BPD’s investigation, the one given to the Washington Post offers a different narrative: that Gray injured himself. That document minimizes officer responsibility for the 25-year-old’s death, and it’s emblematic of a larger police strategy to deflect blame.
In some instances, officers make false claims that are eventually disproved. Before video of Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back surfaced, North Charleston police claimed Scott grabbed Slager’s Taser and attempted to use it. The Cleveland Police Department said Tamir Rice was sitting at a table, was told multiple times to put his hands up, and reached for his gun before officers shot and killed him. Video later disproved the department’s claims.
In other cases, police disclose background information that has nothing to do with the encounters in question, but which seems to undermine the character of someone who is no longer alive to defend themselves. Sanford Police told the Orlando Sentinel that, prior to his death, Trayvon Martin (who was killed by a private citizen and not a police officer) was suspended for an empty marijuana baggie. In the case against Officer Johannes Mehserle, who shot Oscar Grant in the back while he lay on a train station floor, defense attorneys brought up Grant’s criminal background and history of resisting arrest.
Other times, officials reveal details that fuel local outrage. After Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson, the Ferguson Police Department released a video of Brown robbing a convenience store. The day before, Captain Ron Johnson took to the streets in solidarity with peaceful demonstrators, and many believed the tide was turning. However, the ill-timed release of the video was subsequently perceived as a power play to distract from Brown’s death.
But cops aren’t the only group to affect smear campaigns against victims of lethal police force, as evidenced by the Post’s decision to publish the BPD document. As noted by Al Jazeera, the New York Times published an article about Brown’s recreational activities, saying “he dabbled in drugs and alcohol” and detailed his “rebellious streak.” The Associated Press tweeted that Renisha McBride, who was shot and killed by a Detroit homeowner, was intoxicated. CBS and NBC reported that Scott had a bench warrant for missing child support payments. Northeast Ohio Media Group detailed Rice’s father’s history of domestic violence.
And since the Washington Post article was published last night, people have taken to social media to express their anger:
WaPo isn't simply smearing someone murdered by police, they are profiting off of smearing someone murdered by police. #FreddieGray
— Remi Kanazi (@Remroum) April 30, 2015
So the Washington Post reports an unnamed prisoner is claiming #FreddieGray willfully injured himself in transport van. For real y'all.
— ReBecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC) April 30, 2015
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) April 30, 2015