There are already a lot of outrageous theories about how Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who suffered a horrific and fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody, died, but it seems like the Baltimore police department wants to add one to the list. On Thursday morning, The Washington Post ran a story about a police document that suggests Gray was trying to hurt himself during his ride in a police van. If you think this sounds absurd, you’re not wrong. After nearly three weeks of complete silence on what happened between Gray’s arrest and the moment officers called for medical help, and after nearly a full week of massive protests, why is there suddenly a leaked official document that puts the blame on a dead man? And why is this — testimony from another man in police custody who could not see anything during Gray’s fatal ride — the only piece of evidence out there? It’s a typical move: counter public outrage by planting seeds of doubt, try to create a story, however implausible, that gives people a way to shift blame off of police. Think about the death of Michael Brown: When Ferguson police released officer Darren Wilson’s name, they also released video footage of Brown allegedly stealing from a convenience store. And when Wilson testified about what happened, he actually said that Brown seemed to grow stronger after being shot. “At this point, it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him,” Wilson said. Or, think about another recent murder of an unarmed man, Walter Scott in South Carolina. Before the public was able to see the video that showed North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shooting Scott in the back, the department’s version of what happened was very different from what actually took place. According to that narrative, Scott was belligerent and tried to take Slager’s taser, which would have made Slager’s actions — shooting a man eight times — legally justified.
Then there are the stories of Darrien Hunt in Utah, and Tamir Rice and John Crawford III in Ohio. All three were carrying toys, and yet police shot and killed them with almost no warning. It was legal for Hunt and Crawford to carry the toy sword and toy gun they each had when they were killed. Without 911 recordings and surveillance videos, it would be easy to imagine menacing characters laughing in the face of law enforcement. Which makes it all the more important that we question official narratives and have access to tools that hold officers accountable. But, even evidence like clear video isn’t a panacea. Despite a video that showed a Staten Island officer using a chokehold on Eric Garner, supporters argued that Garner resisted, and that he wasn’t in distress because he could say, “I can’t breathe.” A grand jury decided not to indict the officer in December. It may seem impossible to challenge the assumptions that make tragedies like these so common, but the ongoing protests and outrage over the steady stream of deaths make it easy to spot discrepancies in official narratives. While it isn't enough yet to change the way the system operates, it's a start.