Protests escalated in Baltimore on Saturday over the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a serious spinal cord injury while in police custody. The mysterious injury raised suspicions that he was taken on a “rough ride,” in which officers deliberately drive erratically to injure unbuckled and handcuffed passengers. But the president of Maryland’s police union told ThinkProgress he is unaware of the unsanctioned police practice.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that term before,” Maryland Fraternal Order of Police President Vince Canales said when asked about the event that may have caused Gray’s death.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts acknowledged on Friday that Gray’s injuries could have been caused by a “rough ride,” but said the investigation into the circumstances of his death will continue even after the police findings are given to prosecutors on Wednesday.
A Baltimore Sun investigation found that Gray is not the only person to emerge from a Baltimore police van with serious injuries — others have won multi-million judgments after suing the police department for their injuries. But despite the repeated brutal incidents, Canales and others closely entwined with the city police are still unaware of the practice.
Baltimore deputy public defender Natalie Finegar told the Baltimore Sun she has no personal knowledge of “rough rides,” but others in her office are aware of the practice. “It is common knowledge among public defenders that [the Baltimore Police Department] has paid out significant judgments in ‘rough ride’ and other cases,” James Johnston, a Baltimore public defender, told the Sun. “In my experience, it is not uncommon for clients to suffer injuries during an arrest.”
When asked about a series of cases of police brutality in Baltimore, Canales presented a very different view from advocates who say the recent incidents in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland and elsewhere were part of a larger systematic problem with police.
Instead of banning any particular police practices, Canales said each incident should be treated on a “case-by-case” basis because “everyone responds differently to different situations.” But reports from across the country have proved otherwise. In Baltimore, an investigation from 2014 found that the police department has paid around $5.7 million to more than 100 people since 2011 in lawsuits claiming officers beat up mostly African American suspects.
“Whenever you talk about a police contact with a citizen, they all are different,” Canales said. “There is no such thing as anything that’s routine. And they all have the potential to escalate into something that could ultimately be tragic and very unfortunate. So I am a little leery to sit and say that anything should be banned or anything shouldn’t be allowed without having more of a context.”
Although he said it’s best to address each incident on its own, Canales said the union has supported some widespread reforms like the body camera legislation which passed the Maryland legislature and will be signed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Tuesday. Hogan said he will sign that bill — which exempts body cameras from a rule that prohibits audio recording without consent — in addition to other bills to double the amount people injured by police can collect in civil lawsuits and require police departments to report deaths to the state police.
While most of the public’s attention is paid this week to the alleged police misconduct against Gray — an event that’s reminiscent of similar incidents in Ferguson, Staten Island and elsewhere in recent months — Canales said he is asking people to remember that police officers are people who sometimes make mistakes, but are mostly doing the best they can.
“These are people for the most part live in your communities and I’m not aware of an individual that wakes up in the morning and wants to come to work and hurt anyone,” he said. “These are unfortunate and tragic situations that occur. They impact my members just as much as they impact the community and those that are affected and part of it.”
For that reason, Canales attended a police rally in Annapolis on Sunday that was planned months ago to show support for officers from the region, many of whom assisted Baltimore police on Saturday when peaceful protests over Gray’s death turned violent.
“There are those who are upset with the police who are having their moment,” he said. “We wanted, as police officers and family of police officers, to have ours as well and just show support for law enforcement.”