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Baltimore • When police spotted Freddie Gray and he took off running through his Baltimore neighborhood, officers made a split-second decision to give chase, setting in motion his death and rioting in the streets.
Fleeing from police is not, by itself, illegal in America, and the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that in safe neighborhoods, people not suspected of criminal activity can ignore a police officer who approaches them, even to the point of walking away.
But courts have set a different standard for places where street crime is common, ruling that police can chase, stop and frisk people if their location contributes to a suspicion of criminal activity.
This double standard is having a major impact as more black men die in encounters with police around the country. Many have been shot or tackled while trying to flee. The court rulings that justify police chases in high-crime areas where many African-Americans live are contributing to a dangerous divide between police and citizens, said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Folks who are going to be the most intimidated or scared of the police are the same people in places where the Supreme Court has said, 'If you run from police, that's suspicion,' " he said.
Edwards is among the legal experts who say unprovoked flight, on its own, shouldn't justify a chase: "If you can walk away, you can run away. It shouldn't matter the speed at which you move away."
There are limits to this leeway: The Supreme Court and lower courts have repeatedly required police to have some justification for stopping or questioning someone in a public place. But several legal experts say that because he was standing in a drug-infested area, Gray's decision to bolt April 12 may have justified the decision by four officers on bicycles to pursue and detain him.
"If the police show up and someone takes off running, that is enough to give rise to suspicion by police," said Joelle Moreno, a former federal prosecutor who is now associate dean of the Florida International University law school. "Running is enough for a preliminary level of suspicion."
Gray, 25, was pinned to a sidewalk, handcuffed and hoisted into a police van where he was put in leg irons after Baltimore officers said he made eye contact with them and ran. Somewhere along the way, he suffered a fatal spinal injury, and the six officers involved were suspended with pay amid a criminal investigation.
Baltimore police initially said the officers acted because they believed Gray was involved in some kind of criminal activity. Later that day, an officer swore in a court document that he had found a knife clipped to the inside of Gray's pocket, and asked that he be charged with carrying a switchblade. A summons was produced, but Gray was in a coma by then, and died a week later.
"The officers made eye contact and he ran. That's part of the question we have to dig into, if there's more than just running. There is no law against running," Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts said.