Underground Police Brutality: Why There Won't Be Justice for Freddie Gray

We talked to a retired cop about rough rides and underground police brutality.

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Complex Original

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Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Jamar Clark. Michael Brown. How often do their names need to be repeated before there’s institutional change within America’s justice system? In the last few years, there’s been an awakening of consciousness around the way police interact with people of color in the U.S., despite a string of non-indictments and acquittals in high-profile cases that could dishearten even the most hopeful communities seeking change.

The latest acquittal is of Edward Nero, one of the six officers tried in the case of Gray’s death. According to a statement from the Baltimore Police Department, after the acquittal of second-degree assault, misconduct in office, and reckless endangerment charges, Nero will remain with the force in an administrative capacity as the investigation continues. The internal investigation is being handled by other police departments, and will not be completed “until all of the criminal cases against the other five officers are complete because they will likely be witnesses in each case.”

Gray’s case has been particularly significant because it’s highlighted the practice of alleged “rough rides,” the theory being that Gray was purposefully not buckled in and jostled about to cause injury. There have been numerous incidents in Baltimore and beyond involving this practice, including the cases of John Wheatfall in 1980, Jeffrey Alston in 2004, Dondi Johnson Sr. in 2005, and Christine Abbott in 2012—all cases that resulted in settlements with the victims or their families.

Mica Grimm, a Minneapolis-based Black Lives Matter organizer, tells Complex that the black community is very familiar with rough rides and similar practices. “We see it all the time,” she says. “It’s just that it’s never been in a case that’s gotten this much attention or where it’s actually used as an excuse for why the person is dead.”

The practice, she explains, reflects a larger issue in America, particularly with police officers. “We feel like we must punish people that we perceive as criminals, not realizing that jail time in and of itself is punishment,” she says. “For an officer to pick someone up and say, ‘Well because I don’t like how you spoke to me,’ or ‘I don’t like you as a person’, you deserve to ride in a car until—and we’ll purposely drive you around until—you’re hurt, but then I have the legal protection of saying I never touched you with my hands.’” This practice serves up an additional disciplinary action that has nothing to do with the law, she says. “We have a legal and a justice system to deal with criminals and their actions and their faults, and yet officers still feel the need to have this sense of justice and to have a sense of authority.”

Complex spoke to a retired high-ranking investigative affairs detective who worked with the New York Police Department for 22 years and wishes to remain anonymous. He says the practice of extrajudicial punishment (punishments carried out without legal process or supervision from the court) comes in part from several high-profile court cases in the 1970s and ‘90s that resulted in policy changes.

Before that, he explains, if cops wanted to punish people—like if someone mouthed off or spat at a cop—they would do something called a “wood shampoo.” They’d use a wooden baton to smack the prisoner on the knees, chest, or head in extreme cases.

After high-profile cases like the Louima incident of 1997, when a Haitian immigrant was forcibly sodomized with a broken-off broom handle by NYPD officers (resulting in the largest police settlement in New York history for $8.7 million), Complex’s official source says extrajudicial punishment didn’t necessarily go away, the practice just went underground.

He gives an example of someone who was arrested for rape or molestation. “If someone got locked up for rape or was a child molester, they’d cuff the person or put them in a car or in a room, and have family member of a victim go in and talk to the guy, which really meant punch the guy and beat the guy up,” our source explains.

“Our policy in NYPD is if you are caught lying, it’s under oath,” he says. “When you are investigated, you are recorded under oath. Lying is a fire-able offense.” So in the case of leaving a family member with a cuffed individual who had committed rape, when the investigator asks “Did you hit this person, the answer is no,” he explains.

When asked about the alleged rough ride in Gray’s case, a Baltimore city police spokesperson told Complex that the practice wasn't brought up by prosecutors.

Activist group Baltimore Bloc says Nero’s acquittal is unsurprising to anyone who has been following police brutality cases in the U.S. The organization says that besides the police department, state attorney Marilyn Mosby is also to blame.

 “We do not believe it was Mosby’s intent to seek justice for Freddie Gray,” the statement reads. “We do not expect justice for Freddie or for Baltimore to come from a prosecutor’s office or a courtroom.”

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