OPED: Freddie Gray's legacy still being written, three years on

Kevin Rector
The Baltimore Sun

It has now been three years since Freddie Gray was pulled from the back of a Baltimore police van with fatal spinal cord injuries, and the process to ensure a similar incident never happens again is still very much underway.

Although it is now clear that no single officer will ever be held accountable in Gray's death, the police department is still being forced to confront on a daily basis the internal shortcomings and abuses Gray's death laid bare.

More:Baltimore police van driver not guilty of 21 charges in Freddie Gray case

Three years later, Freddie Gray's legacy in Baltimore is still being written.

On Friday, for instance, officials with the city, the police department and the U.S. Department of Justice are scheduled to meet in U.S. District Court downtown to discuss progress in three specific problem areas spotlighted by the Gray case and identified for reform under the parties' sweeping consent decree: transportation of detainees, misconduct investigations and discipline, and the use of force by police officers.

Police say they will discuss the replacement of vans, like the one Gray was transported in, with newer vehicles that have a better design for securing detainees and functioning cameras to observe their actions and those of officers handling them.

Officials will discuss efforts to overhaul the complaint process, to improve how citizens' grievances are handled along with other identified violations of policy, and to retrain supervisors to better oversee the officers under them.

And they will discuss a revamped use-of-force policy that narrows the circumstances under which officers are allowed to put their hands on — or use weapons against — citizens and mandates enhanced reporting requirements whenever they do.

These issues were all central to Gray's case, but they also affect scores of other residents on a regular basis. The changes being implemented are all now part of Gray's legacy.

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Gray was arrested April 12, 2015, and placed in handcuffs and leg shackles in the back of a police van. Forty-five minutes later, after a roundabout route through the city during which the van made multiple stops, Gray, still in the rear of the van, was found unresponsive. He died a week later. He was 25.

After his death, there were widespread protests against police brutality, and riots erupted. The National Guard was called into the city, and a weeklong curfew was instituted. The Justice Department announced a sweeping investigation into the police department, which resulted in the consent decree being signed last year. And Gray's family was awarded $6.4 million in a civil settlement with the city.

Six officers involved in Gray's arrest were charged in criminal court, but none were convicted. The Justice Department declined to bring federal charges against the officers. And Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who was fired earlier this year, decided to drop the last disciplinary charges against an officer in the case in November, after internal trial boards cleared other officers facing similar administrative charges.

This will be the first anniversary of Gray's death on which no officer is facing discipline in any way. That chapter has closed.

More:Officer’s acquittal leaves Baltimore asking: What happened?

But broader accountability from the department for its vast deficiencies, which Gray's death put under a global microscope, is still possible, and will have an impact far greater than the prosecution of six officers ever could.

That chapter is still being written — and it may be the most important one yet.

— Kevin Rector covers crime and the Baltimore Police Department for The Baltimore Sun; his email is krector@baltsun.com.