Fred­die Gray’s death, en­su­ing un­rest, spark leg­isla­tive agenda

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - OBIT­U­ARY POL­ICY By LEXIE SCHAPITL

Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice

— On April 12, 2015, one day be­fore the close of that year’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion, Bal­ti­more City police ar­rested 25-year-old Fred­die Car­los Gray for pos­sess­ing what they said was an il­le­gal switch­blade. Of­fi­cers placed Gray in the back of a police van to be trans­ported to the sta­tion.

While rid­ing in the van, Gray suf­fered a spinal in­jury and was taken to the hos­pi­tal, where he un­der­went surgery and fell into a coma. On April 19, 2015, days af­ter state leg­is­la­tors had packed up and left An­napo­lis, Gray died.

Gray’s death sparked huge civil un­rest in the city that be­came na­tional news.

One year later, dozens of leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als re­sulted from or gar­nered ad­di­tional at­ten­tion be­cause of the death of a dis­ad­van­taged, young, black man from West Bal­ti­more and the long-stand­ing frus­tra­tions this in­ci­dent brought to the sur­face.

From police re­la­tions and prison re­form to poverty and ur­ban blight, State Sen. Cather­ine Pugh (D-Bal­ti­more) said, Gray’s death and the fol­low­ing un­rest brought a spot­light to is­sues the city has been fac­ing for a long time.

“We’re pay­ing at­ten­tion to things as sim­ple as light­ing in neigh­bor­hoods, some­thing that prob­a­bly would not have got­ten the at­ten­tion that it’s cur­rently get­ting,” Pugh said in March. “No ques­tion that Fred­die Gray has had a great im­pact.”

As a re­sult, law­mak­ers dur­ing this year’s ses­sion were more will­ing to ad­dress the city’s chal­lenges, said Pugh, who on April 26 won the Demo­cratic pri­mary for Bal­ti­more’s may­oral race.

“As is now clear, Fred­die Gray’s death and what hap­pened in the af­ter­math rad­i­cally changed the po­lit­i­cal and leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties of Bal­ti­more and the state leg­is­la­ture,” said Wil­liam H. Mur­phy Jr., a Bal­ti­more at­tor­ney who rep­re­sents the Gray fam­ily.

COL­LEGE PARK Polic­ing and jus­tice mea­sures

One Gen­eral Assem­bly mea­sure, an om­nibus bill to re­form pub­lic safety and polic­ing prac­tices, made changes to the state’s Law En­force­ment Of­fi­cers’ Bill of Rights. The leg­is­la­tion in­cludes pro­vi­sions to al­low cit­i­zens to file complaints against police anony­mously; to ex­tend the time pe­riod dur­ing which Mary­lan­ders can file complaints from 90 days to one year and a day af­ter an in­ci­dent; and to es­tab­lish new stan­dards for train­ing, evaluation and dis­ci­pline of of­fi­cers.

The bill was based on the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Pub­lic Safety and Polic­ing Work­group, which formed in May 2015 to ex­am­ine law en­force­ment prac­tices across the state. Pugh, Mary­land Se­nate co-chair of the work­group, said she thinks this group would not have ex­isted had it not been for Gray.

“What peo­ple saw on the news dur­ing the un­rest... it cer­tainly ex­posed the prob­lems that ex­ist in Bal­ti­more,” she said. “All of this un­rest helps to evoke the con­ver­sa­tions that peo­ple don’t re­ally want to have about the dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices that ex­ist in our na­tion, and con­ver­sa­tions that need to be had around in­clu­sion, and di­ver­sity, and... equal­iza­tion of wealth in our na­tion.”

The Rev. Ja­mal Bryant, a Bal­ti­more pas­tor who eu­lo­gized Fred­die Gray, said he raised con­cerns about mis­con­duct within the city’s police depart­ment months be­fore Gray died. But Gray’s death has al­lowed these is­sues to gain more trac­tion.

“Now the whole world is watch­ing and look­ing to see how will we re­bound,” Bryant said

“We worked on it all sum­mer long and I think we got it right,” Pugh said, af­ter the Assem­bly passed the work­group bill on the last day of its ses­sion.

Other, failed pro­pos­als would have al­lowed police de­part­ments to re­move of­fi­cers with­out pay for some mis­de­meanor con­vic­tions and clas­si­fied ad­di­tional vi­o­la­tions as of­fi­cer mis­con­duct — in­clud­ing dis­abling body cam­eras, fail­ing to re­quest med­i­cal at­ten­tion for a per­son in cus­tody, and im­proper use of force.

The Assem­bly also passed a sweep­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form bill on the last day of the ses­sion, af­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions to rec­on­cile dif­fer­ences be­tween the House and Se­nate pro­pos­als. The Jus­tice Rein­vest­ment Act aims to re­duce the num­ber of Mary­lan­ders in prison and re­duce sen­tences for non­vi­o­lent drug of­fend­ers by fo­cus­ing on treat­ment rather than in­car­cer­a­tion. The bill in­cludes pro­vi­sions to ex­pand ex­punge­ment poli­cies, re­duce the use of manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences and amend pa­role and pro­ba­tion pro­ce­dures.

Se­nate Ju­di­cial Pro­ceed­ings Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Zirkin (D-Bal­ti­more Co.) called the leg­is­la­tion a “game-changer.”

“We’ve never looked at (the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem) in a holis­tic way,” he said. “In my 18 years down here there’s never been a big­ger piece of leg­is­la­tion that I’ve ever seen.”

Mur­phy said this ses­sion’s crim­i­nal jus­tice over­haul on sen­tenc­ing and drug pos­ses­sion “will have far­reach­ing con­se­quences” for the peo­ple of Bal­ti­more, as the “sweep­ing pack­age of leg­isla­tive re­forms” aims to min­i­mize un­nec­es­sary in­car­cer­a­tion and focus on re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Another bill in­tro­duced in re­sponse to Gray’s death would have re­quired law en­force­ment of­fi­cers to use pro­tec­tive head­gear with a face shield on peo­ple they place in cus­tody with the use of “phys­i­cal re­straint.”

“While be­ing trans­ported in a police van, Mr. Gray fell into a coma and was taken to the hos­pi­tal. Mr. Gray died as a re­sult of in­juries to his spinal cord on April 19, 2015,” the bill’s leg­isla­tive anal­y­sis states. “Police Com­mis­sioner An­thony W. Batts re­ported that, con­trary to depart­ment pol­icy, the of­fi­cers did not se­cure Mr. Gray inside the van while trans­port­ing him to the police sta­tion. The au­topsy found that Mr. Gray had sus­tained the in­juries while in trans­port.”

The bill re­ceived an un­fa­vor­able re­port from the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and failed to ad­vance.

Two state sen­a­tors spon­sored a bill this ses­sion that would pro­hibit coun­ties and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties from en­act­ing reg­u­la­tions on knives that are more re­stric­tive or come with harsher penal­ties than state law al­lows.

The bill’s fis­cal and pol­icy note cites that Bal­ti­more City Police ar­rested Gray “for pos­sess­ing what the police al­leged was an il­le­gal switch­blade.” This bill also died in a com­mit­tee.

The Gen­eral Assem­bly passed a bill this ses­sion that will pro­vide tax cred­its aimed to en­cour­age Bal­ti­more pub­lic safety of­fi­cers to live in the city. Ac­cord­ing to a leg­isla­tive anal­y­sis, 21 per­cent of city police, fire and sher­iff’s of­fi­cers live within Bal­ti­more, while 68 per­cent live in other parts of Mary­land and 10 per­cent live out of state.

Pugh and other spon­sors in both cham­bers pro­posed a bill that would have cre­ated a Com­mis­sion to Study the Dis­pro­por­tion­ate Jus­tice Im­pact on Mi­nori­ties, but this leg­is­la­tion failed.

Bal­ti­more neigh­bor­hoods

This ses­sion also saw the Gen­eral Assem­bly pass sev­eral pieces of leg­is­la­tion aimed to help re­vi­tal­ize Bal­ti­more. Pugh said this ses­sion will bring $290 mil­lion back to the city.

The Re­build­ing Bal­ti­more City Com­mu­ni­ties Act of 2016 estab­lishes a prop­erty tax credit for real es­tate in city neigh­bor­hoods with a va­cant dwelling rate of at least 35 per­cent. This bill is await­ing Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s sig­na­ture.

One bill cre­ated a fund to pro­vide grants and loans to as­sist in de­mo­li­tion and de­vel­op­ment for re­vi­tal­iza­tion projects in Bal­ti­more and other ar­eas of the state. The bill also re­quires the gover­nor to ap­pro­pri­ate more than $22 mil­lion to this fund for projects in the city specif­i­cally for fis­cal year 18. Another bill estab­lishes the Bal­ti­more Re­gional Neigh­bor­hood Ini­tia­tive Pro­gram to focus lo­cal hous­ing and busi­ness in­vest­ment in com­mu­ni­ties where it can have the most im­pact; it also re­quires Ho­gan to in­clude $12 mil­lion for the pro­gram’s fund in the an­nual bud­get bill, for fis­cal 2018 through 2022. These pro­pos­als passed early and be­came law be­cause the gover­nor did not re­turn them with ob­jec­tions dur­ing the ses­sion.

Lead poi­son­ing pre­ven­tion and set­tle­ments

Af­ter Gray’s death, the Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished a se­ries of ar­ti­cles de­tail­ing his strug­gle with lead poi­son­ing in a poor West Bal­ti­more neigh­bor­hood. The Gen­eral Assem­bly this ses­sion took up sev­eral bills that aimed to com­bat child lead poi­son­ing in the state.

As a child, Gray’s blood had in­creas­ing lev­els of lead, likely the re­sult of chipped paint in his apart­ment, the Post re­ported. There is no safe blood level of lead in chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to the CDC.

The im­pact of lead poi­son­ing is ir­re­versible, and makes chil­dren more likely to drop out of school or be­come in­volved with ju­ve­nile crime, Ruth Ann Nor­ton, pres­i­dent of the Green and Healthy Homes Ini­tia­tive, said at a Fe­bru­ary Ju­di­cial Pro­ceed­ings Com­mit­tee hear­ing on lead leg­is­la­tion. Lead also has long-term im­pacts in­clud­ing hy­per­ten­sion, car­diac ar­rest, and early mor­tal­ity, she added.

Gray and his sib­lings filed a lawsuit against a for­mer land­lord in 2008 and set­tled for an undis­closed amount, ac­cord­ing to the Post. Gray later agreed to sell $146,000 worth of his struc­tured set­tle­ment, with value at that time of $94,000, to a lo­cal com­pany called Ac­cess Fund­ing for about $18,300, the Post re­ported.

This news led Mary­land At­tor­ney Gen­eral Brian Frosh to take ac­tion against what he called “predatory” com­pa­nies.

Frosh spon­sored leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing that courts find trans­fers to be in the best in­ter­est of the payee and that ap­pli­ca­tions for trans­fer are filed in the ju­ris­dic­tion in which the payee re­sides. The bill passed the Gen­eral Assem­bly on April 8 and now sits on Ho­gan’s desk.

“It’s a dark busi­ness,” Frosh said af­ter a Se­nate Ju­di­cial Pro­ceed­ings Com­mit­tee hear­ing on the bill in March. “Peo­ple are lit­er­ally call­ing up the most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of so­ci­ety and pur­chas­ing their prop­erty for pen­nies on the dol­lar, and it’s a prac­tice we want to bring to a halt.”

But other bills re­lat­ing to lead poi­son­ing didn’t suc­ceed this ses­sion. For ex­am­ple, the Mary­land Lead Poi­son­ing Re­cov­ery Act, which would have held lead pig­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers li­able for damages and re­quired the gover­nor to put money to­ward lead abate­ment and pre­ven­tion pro­grams, failed to move out of com­mit­tee.

Mov­ing for­ward

While Mur­phy ap­plauded the leg­is­la­ture’s crim­i­nal jus­tice re­forms, he said he was dis­ap­pointed that police ac­count­abil­ity and lead­poi­son­ing pre­ven­tion ef­forts did not go far enough. The use of police body cam­eras, for ex­am­ple, could have a “tre­men­dous im­pact on Fred­die Gray’s neigh­bor­hood,” but “there’s much left to be done to pro­tect the cit­i­zens from im­proper police con­duct,” he said.

Mur­phy sug­gested the Law En­force­ment Of­fi­cer’s Bill of Rights should be “scut­tled, if not over­hauled,” and that vic­tims of police in­juries should be able to win more than the $400,000 al­lowed by damages caps in state law­suits.

He will be heav­ily in­volved in ef­forts to fur­ther ad­dress these is­sues next ses­sion, he said.

De­spite some leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ments, Bryant agreed there is still work to be done to aid Bal­ti­more com­mu­ni­ties.

“Most of it I think was, by and large, ges­ture, or a tip of the hat or a head nod, but not re­ally full clean sweeps of what needs to hap­pen,” said Bryant, who also stressed the need to im­prove ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices in the city.

Bryant said “the jury is still out” on how this ses­sion’s leg­is­la­tion might help the peo­ple of Bal­ti­more, cit­ing the im­pact that a new mayor, pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion and na­tional at­mos­phere could have.

Bryant said while he does not be­lieve the of­fi­cers in­volved in Gray’s death will be “held ac­count­able,” police re­form leg­is­la­tion of­fers a “glim­mer of hope that maybe things will be dif­fer­ent down the road.”

Some mem­bers of the com­mu­nity have ex­pressed con­cerns the police ac­count­abil­ity leg­is­la­tion lacks “teeth,” and is more sym­bolic than sub­stan­tive, Bryant said.

“It is a be­gin­ning,” Bryant said. “For us to even have a dis­cus­sion I think is birthed out of the Fred­die Gray upris­ing...while the bill in to­tal doesn’t go far enough, it wouldn’t have got­ten this far had we not had the upris­ing.”

“We’re on the up­ward swing, I be­lieve, for heal­ing to hap­pen in the city be­tween police and com­mu­nity,” he added.

CRE­ATIVE COM­MONS

Protests, such as this one at a police sta­tion near the site of Fred­die Gray’s ar­rest on April 25, 2015, helped in­spire leg­isla­tive changes in the re­cent Gen­eral Assem­bly.

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