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'Baltimore Sun' Investigation Shows Police Denied Medical Care To Suspects

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Among the few facts known about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore last month is that he suffered a severe spinal injury and that, despite Gray's repeated request, officers didn't call for a medic for 45 minutes, until they'd reached the police station. At that point he was unconscious. Now, a Baltimore Sun investigation has found police there often disregard or are oblivious to injuries and illnesses among people they apprehend. Investigative reporter Mark Puente co-wrote that story, and joins me now. Welcome to the program.

MARK PUENTE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So help us understand the scale of this problem. Is it fair to say that what happened to Freddie Gray is not uncommon?

PUENTE: That's correct. We requested records from the city jail that showed that in the past nearly three years, 2,600 people have been denied custody to the jail who have been arrested by police. There's no way to determine if the police caused the injuries based upon the records being redacted. But what we found in an investigation that showed our city has paid out millions in lawsuits, a lot of people did accuse these police of injuries and they did deny the care.

CORNISH: So when you talk about people being denied, this means that they arrive at central booking, and they get rejected by the intake officers because it seems like they're too injured to make it through the four-hour process, right?

PUENTE: They are. If they're not stable enough or there's blood pouring off their eye or nose, they won't admit them, and they must be taken for medical care immediately by the police department. And a lot of the injuries were, like, high blood pressure, pregnancy or mental health status. But we did also find that the third-highest rejection was for head injuries. Some people had fractures and broken bones, so the injuries run a whole list of different scenarios.

CORNISH: Walk us through one of these incidents that led to a settlement between a suspect and the city.

PUENTE: Star Brown, a pregnant accountant - she called police after witnessing an attack a few years back, and police came. She told people they were arresting the wrong suspect. The conversation turned heated, and they threatened to arrest Ms. Brown. She screamed that she's pregnant. The bystander screamed that she was pregnant, and the police yelled, we hear it all the time. They threw her down off the porch in East Baltimore and rammed a knee into her back, according to what she said in court. And the city paid her $125,000.

CORNISH: A $125,000 settlement - how unusual is that figure?

PUENTE: That's not unusual in Baltimore. There's a cap in Maryland that caps the damages at $200,000 in most cases. Our investigation last year found that many people do get the 200,000. Some do get higher for certain circumstances. The story Sunday showed where an individual went to trial, and he won $170,000 after he accused officers of beating him in the face with a baton and fist. And he also was denied medical care for facial fractures.

CORNISH: What is the police officer's responsibility when it comes to determining whether someone needs care or not? Officers must run into people who are faking their injuries.

PUENTE: That is a common problem, and that did come up in the Freddie Gray case. The state prosecutor said that one of the officers overheard, you know, use of term jail-itis, which is common among police officers - prison-itis - to avoid being locked up. But also, as the Freddie Gray case points out, officers denied medical care, and they said that was one of the biggest issues. They should have called sooner.

CORNISH: Do they have any kind of training to help them make that determination?

PUENTE: The experts we talked to said it's basic training. You know, unless there's a bone sticking out of, you know, someone's arm or leg, they can't tell if it's fractured. Or if someone's having chest pains, they're supposed to call or get him to the emergency department to do a screening. But police officers aren't doctors, and that's part of the debate of how to solve some of these problems in Baltimore and across the country.

CORNISH: Mark Puente of the Baltimore Sun, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PUENTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.