May
07

"Van Therapy" and Freddie Gray

Reliable information is hard to come by in the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, but, from a distance, he looks to be a victim of a police practice known throughout the United States: Gray was no doubt administered an overdose of “van therapy.”

What’s that? Why, it’s a close cousin to “bullpen therapy.”

Still confusI am referring to passive violence typically administered in a deniable fashion to those who the police think protest too loudly.

Mr. Gray was taken into police custody April 12. Why? He fled when he spotted police. That in and of itself is no reason to take a person into custody. Police need what the law calls an “articulable suspicion” that the person to be detained might be involved in criminal conduct to justify an investigative stop. An articulable suspicion is simply a suspicion that can be put in words. Even greater justification is needed to arrest someone.

In plenty of neighborhoods, running when the police arrive is simply a matter of good sense, especially if you are a young, black male.

In less than a minute, police officers had the young man in custody. They placed him in handcuffs, hands behind his back, as is common procedure — the better to assure the detainee can’t reach for a hidden weapon. In police-speak, such tactics are justified on grounds of “officer safety.”

I can imagine Mr. Gray asking the officers why he was being taken into custody. I can also imagine officers growing impatient with his questions. Why’d he run, if he did no wrong? We’ll figure out what he did later, in the quiet and calm of the police station, the officers no doubt reasoned.

Within minutes, a police transport van had arrived. Mr. Gray was shackled around the ankles now, too. They put him in a police van to take him to the lockup. Their reports will say they “placed” him in the vehicle. Law witnesses will say he was “thrown” in it.

There appears to be no dispute that he was not seat-belted.

One press report says that as he lay facedown, he was telling officers he could not breathe, and that he needed his inhaler.

I can imagine an officer asking him how he ran so fast if he needed an inhaler. Officers easily grown deaf to the complaints of those just arrested and cuffed: Complaints that handcuffs are too tight, that the arrestee cannot breathe, that a doctor is needed are about as common as threats to sue the arresting officers.

Never forget for a moment that police officers are trained in the use of force, and they are taught that they can use reasonable force to overcome the resistance of a person in their custody. A complacent federal judiciary has drawn the lines of what is reasonable in such a permissive fashion that most officers are justified in thinking they can get away with murder, so long as they get stories right.

Comes now the van therapy.

Mr. Gray is on the floor of the van. I can see the officers accelerate and then slam on the brakes, listening, even chuckling, as they hear Mr. Gray cascading off the walls in the back. He’s loud at first, perhaps crying out in pain.

A sharp turn, and another slam on the brakes. A thud. Mr. Gray grows silent.

The van therapy session is complete. The young man has been taught to be quiet and compliant. Had he not been so mouthy when he was taken into custody, the therapy would not have been necessary.

Only this time, when the officers open the back of the van, Mr. Gray isn’t just quiet; he’s limp. A photo of him being removed shows a man-child incapable of moving. The officers later learned he suffered a severe and critical neck injury, no doubt the result of being bounced around like a ping-pong ball in the terror of his therapeutic joyride.

In the past 20 years, I have spoken to many young men, almost all of them black, who describe such rides. And it’s not just police officers who do it. Mouthy prisoners brought to court by the Department of Correction describe the same thing. Similar punches, pushes and slaps are used against those in jail cells — bullpen therapy, it’s called.

In the 1990s, a Waterbury police officer once testified that, as a matter of policy, a person who suffered minor physical injuries when arrested was invariably charged with interfering with arrest, a misdemeanor. If the arrestee were seriously injured, the charge was assault on a police officer, a felony. Why the criminal charges? The folks would not have been injured if they weren’t resisting.

In other words, the police could do no wrong. When you are in the custody of lawmen, anything that happens to you is your fault. Police officers, you see, control the narrative presented to prosecutors. They file reports describing the injuries you sustained.

Most of the time, no one cares when a detainee complains about excessive force. Police officers are our friends, right?

All this, and you’d think I would applaud the decision of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to bring criminal charges against the six officers involved in Mr. Gray’s terror ride. But I can’t. Candidly, the young prosecutor is scarcely distinguishable from the officers she prosecutes — she’s rushed to judgment, and is playing to a constituency that recently elected her to office.

Mr. Gray should not have been arrested. He certainly should not have died in police custody. But launching a criminal prosecution to keep peace in the violent streets of Baltimore is simply lynching by another name. Beware the mob; always, beware the mob.

There was jubilation on the streets of Baltimore when the arrest of the Baltimore Six was announced. “No justice, no peace,” protestors chanted.

I am looking forward to watching the proceedings in this case. Both police and protesters will no doubt be disappointed in the end. There’s no justice in dark vans or hasty arrests, whether the arrestees be kids or cops.

Related topics: Journal Register Columns
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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis

Disclaimer:

Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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