Credit Baltimore Police Department
WASHINGTON — Six Baltimore police officers will face no federal charges in the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died of a severe spinal cord injury while in custody, the Justice Department announced on Tuesday.
“After an extensive review of this tragic event, conducted by career prosecutors and investigators, the Justice Department concluded that the evidence is insufficient,” the department said in a statement, adding that it was unable to prove the officers “willfully violated Gray’s civil rights.”
The closure of the criminal civil rights investigation into Mr. Gray’s death, which prompted unrest in Baltimore, a predominantly black city, and a federal examination of its police department’s practices, means that no officers will be held criminally responsible in his death.
Mr. Gray was arrested in April 2015 and charged with illegal possession of a switchblade after running from officers. Following his arrest, he rode in a police van — shackled but unsecured by a seatbelt, as required by police department regulations — and was found unresponsive. He died the following week.
Six officers were charged by the Baltimore state’s attorney with crimes related to Mr. Gray’s death, including manslaughter and murder. All were cleared in those cases as well.
“At no time did we ever believe that there was evidence that any of the officers violated anyone’s civil rights or were guilty of violating any federal laws,” Michael E. Davey, a lawyer for the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said in a statement on Tuesday.
In August, the Justice Department issued a blistering report detailing misconduct and the use of excessive force by the city’s Police Department, which is operating under a consent decree — a court-enforceable agreement to enact reforms — entered into during the Obama administration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has criticized such agreements, saying they vilify law enforcement and inhibit police officers trying to do their job. Mr. Sessions has called for a sweeping review of such consent decrees, and the Justice Department unsuccessfully sought to delay Baltimore’s implementation of its agreement to overhaul policing practices.
The six officers involved in Mr. Gray’s death still work for the Baltimore Police Department, Nicole Monroe, a spokeswoman, said on Tuesday. Five of them face internal administrative investigations while one, William G. Porter, has been cleared.
“He’s been back on the force, and he’s very relieved,” Joseph Murtha, a lawyer for Mr. Porter, said on Tuesday. “I was always optimistic that at the end of the investigation, they would conclude there’d be no basis for a civil rights investigation.”
The bar for charging police officers with federal civil rights violations is extremely high, and prosecutions are rare.
“These cases are very difficult, obviously — the state prosecution demonstrated that,” A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in police brutality cases, said of the investigation into Mr. Gray’s death. “But I expected this to happen, based on the comments of the attorney general and the president himself. The top people in the Justice Department are saying, ‘We’ve got the back of the police.’”
Mr. Pettit referenced President Trump’s remarks in July in which he urged the police not to be “too nice” in transporting suspects. A White House spokesman later called that comment a joke, though many in law enforcement took it seriously and were quick to repudiate any inappropriate use of force.
“What can you expect from an administration that makes those comments?” Mr. Pettit said.
This year, the Justice Department announced similar decisions in two other high-profile civil rights investigations in which men died at the hands of police officers: the shooting death of Alton Sterling, a black man in Louisiana, and the shooting death of James Boyd, a mentally ill man in New Mexico.