April 24, 2015 / 12:46 AM / 5 years ago

Gaps remain in probe of Baltimore man's death in police custody

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - An investigation into the death of a black man in Baltimore police custody is still trying to figure out what happened, the police commissioner said on Friday as the city braced for a major protest over the incident.

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said police would release surveillance camera photos involving the death of Freddie Gray, 25, who died on Sunday a week after being arrested. A preliminary autopsy report said he had suffered a spinal injury.

Gray’s death has sparked days of protests in the largely black city of about 620,000 people. More than 1,000 protesters are expected in Baltimore for a march from the site of his arrest to City Hall on Saturday, police said.

“We’re getting closer and the picture is getting sharper and sharper as we move forward,” Batts told a news conference, adding that “multiple gaps” still remained.

The incident was the latest in a string of deaths of black men at the hands of police, including in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, which have prompted waves of protest across the United States.

Gray and a second man fled when officers approached them in a high-crime area on April 12, police said. Gray was nabbed and arrested for carrying a switchblade knife.

Batts said Gray was put in a police van for transport to a police station and he was not buckled in at any time, as regulations required. Police also repeatedly failed to give him medical assistance, he said.

Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis said the van stopped once to put Gray in leg restraints, followed by a second stop. “The facts of that interaction are under investigation,” he said.

The van stopped a third time to pick up a second suspect, who was put in the back of the vehicle with a metal barrier separating the men. A police witness has said Gray was talking then, Davis said.

“They pick him up off the floor and place him on the seat at that time. He says he needs a medic,” Davis said.

When the van arrived at the Western District police station, an ambulance was called and Gray was taken to a hospital.

Demonstrators pretend to be arrested in front of the Baltimore Police Department Western District station to protest against the death in police custody of Freddie Gray in Baltimore April 23, 2015. REUTERS/Sait Serkan

PEACEFUL PROTESTS

Police will complete their investigation by May 1 and turn the results over to state prosecutors, to be followed by an independent review. Six police officers have been suspended.

Batts also rejected a call from the head of a ministers’ group for his resignation and urged protesters attending Saturday’s rally to carry out a peaceful demonstration.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Friday also praised organizers of peaceful protests over Gray’s death. Unlike in Ferguson, where peaceful protests were punctuated by rioting, arson and looting, protests in Baltimore have seen only a handful of arrests and no major violence.

Unlike in Ferguson, where police turned to paramilitary tactics, donning riot helmets and vests and rolling out armored vehicles to confront protesters, Baltimore police have remained in patrol uniforms and given protesters a wide berth.

Police have maintained barricades preventing protesters from approaching the domed City Hall, and the station house where Gray was taken has been blocked off by barriers.

Ken Jones, a police spokesman, said Baltimore police had taken lessons from the Ferguson unrest. “We don’t want to come off heavy-handed, yet,” Jones said.

But Scott Bolden, a Washington lawyer with expertise in cases involving police, said U.S. police generally had seen the value of officers remaining non-confrontational in the face of protests.

Slideshow (9 Images)

Police forces across the United States, he said, have “learned how not to handle these issues, based on what we saw in Ferguson.”

The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a separate probe into Gray’s death. A wake for Gray is scheduled for Sunday, with his funeral on Monday.

Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone, Richard Chang and Eric Beech

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