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Crime & Justiceby Fern Shen12:48 pmApr 12, 20170

Asked to ponder police role in Freddie Gray’s death, Pugh passes

“I can’t go back. I can only go forward,” mayor says on two-year anniversary of his arrest

Above: A mural dedicated to Freddie Gray at the intersection of North Mount and Presbury streets. (Jennifer Bishop)

The 1700 block of Presbury Street, where police tackled Freddie Gray two years ago today, is a little over three miles from City Hall.

Members of the media tried to get Mayor Catherine Pugh to go back to that fateful day and place, the Gilmor Homes project in West Baltimore.

“Are there still unanswered questions for you about everything that happened to him?” a reporter asked at Pugh’s weekly press availability today. “And if so, what are they?”

Pugh was not going there.

“Well, let me just say that, because that’s not my role, I am still saddened for the family themselves because the loss of any child is hurtful to anyone,” she began.

She went on to talk about the new mobile jobs van she just dispatched to Mondawmin Mall, improvements she wants to make in recreation fields in West Baltimore, books she’s trying to get for Gilmor Elementary School, private money she’s looking for to improve the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center on Pennsylvania Avenue (“about 60% of the lanes don’t work”).

Later in the news conference, the reporter tried again.

“Madam Mayor,” he said, “what role do you believe police played in Freddie Gray getting his injuries?”

“I would have no idea,” she answered. “It’s not my responsibility. My role as mayor of this city is to protect our citizens, to make a better environment for community policing.

“So,” she concluded, “I can’t go back. I can only move forward.”

Quest for Justice

A real look back is painful considering how little clarity or justice the city came away with in the ensuing two years.

Gray died in the hospital a week later of severe spinal injuries.

The officers had filed a report that day saying their arrest of the 25-year-old took place “without force or incident.”

Meanwhile, an eyewitness, Kevin Moore, described how the officers had Gray face down on the ground: “They had him folded up like he was a crab or a piece of origami.”

“He was all bent up. The officer had their knee on his neck and he was just screaming,” Moore said at the time.

Six officers were charged in Gray’s death, accused of causing fatal injuries by taking Gray for a “rough ride” in a police van, but in the end all walked free.

The prospect for a broader kind of justice is likewise murky.

Gray’s fatal arrest sparked protests, rioting and calls for attention to be paid to the city’s desperately poor, predominantly black neighborhoods suffering from decades of redlining and neglect  – with mixed results.

The “OneBaltimore” entity created to raise millions shut down earlier this year after raising about $600,000 in public and private funds, with more than half going towards administrative costs.

The city and the U.S. Department of Justice entered into a consent decree aimed at ending unconstitutional and discriminatory police practices.

Pushing back against a Trump administration motion to pause the decree, a federal judge recently approved it.

But long term, the police reform process faces fiscal and political challenges in cash-strapped and crime-plagued Baltimore, as well as in GOP-led Washington.

In Annapolis, during the recently-concluded legislative session, the city didn’t fare well on police accountability reform, either.

Legislation supported by Pugh that would have cleared the way for citizens to serve on police trial boards didn’t pass.

“We are in police negotiations. And so we did hold up on the – getting the citizens on trial boards – because we’re still negotiating that,” she explained to reporters today.

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