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Baltimore is not Ferguson: Police violence and its aftermath

Like Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore is dealing with the death of a young black man stopped by police for a minor infraction. But unlike Ferguson, officials in Baltimore have been quick to question police conduct, and protests have been generally peaceful.

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Protesters rally to protest the death of Freddie Gray who died following an arrest in Baltimore. Thousands of demonstrators chanting "shut it down" marched through the city Saturday to protest the death of a black man who died after being taken into police custody.

Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

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Like Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Md., is going through the community-wrenching aftermath of the death of a black man stopped by police for a minor infraction that quickly escalated from confrontation into grief for a family, deep procedural questions for the police, and a probe of possible civil rights violations by the US Justice Department.

But in fact, there are more important differences than similarities between Baltimore and Ferguson.

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Both cities are mostly African-American, but in Ferguson most city and police officials at the time unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson were white.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts are both African-American, and – unlike Ferguson officials, who were defensive after Michael Brown’s death – both the mayor and the police commissioner in Baltimore have been quick to question and even criticize police actions leading to Freddie Gray’s death.

When police approached Mr. Gray in a high-crime area April 12, he tried to flee but was caught and arrested for carrying a switchblade knife. He was placed in a police transport vehicle, but he was not buckled into a seat – a safety requirement – nor was he given medical attention when he complained of an asthma condition.

By the time the vehicle reached a police station, it was obvious that Gray needed medical attention – including for a nearly-severed spinal cord. He was taken to a hospital, where he went into a coma and died a week later. He was 25 years old.

Speaking with reporters Friday Commissioner Batts said it was possible Gray was hurt before the van ride or during a "rough ride" – where officers hit the brakes and take sharp turns to injure suspects in the back of vans.

"We know he was not buckled in the transportation wagon as he should have been. There's no excuse for that, period," Batts said. "We know our police employees failed to give him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times."

Also speaking Friday, Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she has many questions.

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"I still want to know why the policies and procedures for transport were not followed," she said. "I still want to know why none of the officers called for immediate medical assistance despite Mr. Gray's apparent pleas.

"The one thing we all know is because of this incident a mother has to bury their child and she doesn't even know exactly how or why this tragedy occurs – only that this occurs while her child was in police custody," the mayor said. "This is absolutely not acceptable, and I want answers."

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, Reuters reports. 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.

That generally peaceful response by police as well a protesters in Baltimore continued Saturday with a march and rally reportedly numbering at least 2,000. By Saturday evening, some protesters had begun throwing items at police, who had donned protective gear, and several police vehicles were damaged.

At about 7:30 pm, police reported via Twitter: “We have isolated pockets of people from out of town causing disturbances downtown. We are deploying resources to keep everyone safe.”

“We want to have a peaceful protest. We don’t want any violence. We want justice, that’s all,” Gray’s cousin Carron Morgan told the Baltimore Sun newspaper.

He said the whole experience has been “a little overwhelming” for the family as it tries to mourn. “I don’t think it’s hit me that he’s really gone,” Mr. Morgan said, according to this report. But, he said, it’s important that the right message be sent at the protests. If protesters act violently or give police reason to respond with force, he said, it will “make it sound like that’s where Freddie came from,” he said. “And that’s not what we’re here for.”

A wake for Freddie Gray is scheduled for Sunday, with his funeral on Monday at New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore. Six Baltimore police officers have been suspended with pay.