BALTIMORE >> Some do it because there are warrants for their arrest. Others because they possess drugs, are seeking a thrill, or are just plain scared. Sometimes people do it even when they have done nothing wrong.
Young men in the heavily policed neighborhood where 25-year-old Freddie Gray was chased by the police – and suffered fatal injuries in custody – say running from officers is a way of life with its own playbook, passed down on the streets in much the way a young girl learns double dutch by watching others on the block.
Turn at the nearest corner to escape the officers’ view. Cut through alleys or narrow paths with hiding spots. Once the pursuers have been eluded, stay put for a while to make sure they are really gone. And if getting caught seems inevitable, surrender where there are plenty of witnesses to reduce the odds of being beaten.
“People been running from the police,” said Desmond Davis, 24, a Baltimore resident. “People going to always run from the police.”
Gray’s death was among a number of recent cases in which unarmed men, who were either black or Hispanic, were killed after fleeing from the police. Other cases include ones in North Charleston, South Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Pasco, Washington.
For the nation, those deaths have spurred debate on the use of force by the police, particularly against people suspected of low-level or nonviolent crimes. But for young men in Baltimore, Gray’s death highlights a sharper dilemma they have long struggled with: Is running worth it?
Many say that it is, and that Gray’s death has not changed their calculation in deciding whether to run.
“That makes you run faster,” said one young man standing on a street near the neighborhood where Gray encountered the police.
Running from the police is common enough nationally that the Supreme Court has considered the question of whether the police are justified in stopping and searching people solely because they have fled approaching officers.
In a 2000 case from Chicago, Illinois v. Wardlow, the court ruled that police can establish reasonable suspicion to stop and search if the person is in a high-crime area and sees the police officers before fleeing. Many legal experts believe those criteria apply in the arrest of Gray in West Baltimore, a neighborhood known for its drug trafficking, where one of the arresting officers said Gray made eye contact with him before running.
Naturally, many people run if there are warrants for their arrest, fearing that if the police check their names they will be hauled to jail. People might flee because they have drugs and do not want to be in possession of contraband if officers catch them.
Yet some say they also are driven by fear of the unknown. In St. Louis, for instance, young men talk of being caught up what they call a “free case” – in which, they believe, an officer trumps up charges or plants contraband to meet arrest quotas. Here in Baltimore, residents complain that the police might rough them up during random stops, even if they do not try to escape.
Jeff Roorda, the business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, challenged the contention that people run from the police because of harassment or brutality.
“I’m not going to refrain from swimming in Loch Ness because I think there’s a monster in there any more than a kid on the street should refrain from complying with the police because of the urban myth that the cop has some motivation to make up the charges,” he said. “People don’t get ’free cased.’ They run from the police because they’ve got some reason to run from the police.”
And when that happens, Roorda added, the results can be bad. “Not because of something the police do,” he said. “Because of something the guy running did, and that is fail to comply.”
As children, several Baltimore residents said, they turned running from the police into a high-stakes game of tag. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity or gave only their street names because they did not want to be identified by the police.
A 21-year-old man who goes by Reek said his youthful encounters with the police usually went something like this: Officers would pull up while he stood with friends on a corner and tell them to move. They would make a smart remark to the officers, the officers would respond, and so they would jaw back and forth until the officers seemed to have enough and got out of the car.
“And they’ll chase us,” Reek said.
“Around here, you grow up into that stuff,” he added. “Now, as I’m older, it’s no point. Because now, if you look at it, if you run, it’s going to make matters even worse.”
Yet for some, there are very basic reasons to run, even as an adult.
Nelly, a 27-year-old from Baltimore, said that as a pair of officers were preparing to arrest him for having a marijuana joint last summer, he had a quick calculation to make. He had just gotten a new job as a maintenance technician at an apartment complex, so going to jail that night could have meant missing work the next day and possibly losing his job. The officers had a loose grip on him, and he knew he could break free if he wanted. But was it worth the risk?
Yes, he decided.
He bolted and quickly caught a break when one of the officers fell off the curb. Nelly said he cut down an alley, jetted into an abandoned house and laid face down.
“It was bugs and everything,” he said.
He waited for about an hour, he said, and then used his cellphone to call a friend to pick him up.
The police did eventually catch up with him, about a week later, he said, when the officers who had given chase recognized him and took him into custody. When the arresting officers asked why he had run, he said, he told them: “Man, I had to work. I got three kids, you know. I couldn’t miss no work.”
He did not run the day they took him into custody, he said, because he was outside playing with his little cousins at the time.
“I didn’t want to set a bad example,” he said.
But his friend Devin, 26, said he did not have as much luck several years back when he ditched the all-terrain vehicle he was riding illegally and led the police on a foot chase. With a police helicopter overhead, Devin said, he made it to a truck storage yard and hid inside a discarded tire. But when he heard the crackle of a police radio, he hopped a fence and landed back on the street. Right in front of him was a burgundy Crown Victoria with police officers inside.
He walked nonchalantly as if he were just another person on the sidewalk until he heard the screech of tires from a police car, he said.
“I took off,” he said.
But it was blazing hot that day. He already had shed his hoodie and removed his gloves, yet after just a few blocks he was breathing heavily as the police car cruised alongside him.
“If I keep running,” he thought, “I’m liable to pass out.”
He saw four elderly women standing on the sidewalk, he said, and stopped in front of them and raised his hands in surrender. An officer then slammed him to the ground, he said.
“Sir, what you do that for,” he recalled one of the women asking the officer. “He gave up.”
Their presence saved him from further force, he said he believed.
Davis, who believes that people will continue to flee from the police, said he stopped running in recent years because he felt he was not doing things that warranted legal trouble. Still, he sometimes regrets that decision. He has been locked up numerous times, he said, for what he sees as petty offenses like possessing small amounts of marijuana. One time, it happened when he was smoking a joint in his backyard, he said.
“Those times,” Davis said, “I should have run.”