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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News
By Jon Schuppe

It began with a look.

Patrolling Baltimore’s impoverished Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park on the morning of April 12, Lt. Brian Rice locked eyes with Freddie Gray.

Gray, 25, who’d grown up in the neighborhood and had a history of drug arrests, began to run. The 41-year-old lieutenant took off after him.

The two men's split-second decisions set into motion a series of events and police errors that resulted in Gray’s death, riots and criminal charges against Rice and five other officers. The case has become the latest flashpoint in the controversy over the use of force by police, and the suspicion festering in many of the communities where they are needed most.

On Friday, the city’s top prosecutor, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, concluded that the officers had no probable cause to arrest Gray — the switchblade they said they found on him turned out to be a legal folding knife. In other words, Gray should not have been put into the police van where he suffered the neck injury that would claim his life.

Police experts said that there may have been good reasons for officers to chase Gray, but the matter should probably have ended when he was caught.

"There are a lot of different factors that go into that decision," of whether to chase a suspect, said Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Those factors include whether there is reason to believe a crime has been committed and whether the person fits the description of a suspect, he said.

Officers are trained to make those judgment calls with very little time to consider the circumstances.

"It’s called 'articulable suspicion,'" Beary said. "Can you articulate a reason to chase that person?"

Baltimore police have said Gray raised officers' suspicions in an area known for drug dealing, and that he "fled unprovoked." A police official told The Baltimore Sun that the officers suspected Gray was "immediately involved or had been recently involved in criminal activity."

According to experts, the biggest lapse in police judgement may have come when the chase ended.

"Cops sometimes get emotional, and it’s essential to have patrol supervisors, people out there stopping this. It’s an oversight issue."

Gray surrendered to two assisting officers, Edward Nero and Garrett Miller, who handcuffed his hands behind his back and laid him on his stomach, Mosby said in a Friday news conference in which she detailed the events leading to Gray’s death.

After Gray asked for an asthma inhaler to ease his breathing, the officers put him in a seated position and searched him. That’s when the officers found the knife clipped to the inside of his pants pocket. They took the knife, put Gray back into a prone position, at which time Gray began to flail and scream, Mosby said. The officers then put a leg-restraining hold on him until a police van arrived.

"Rice, Nero and Miller failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray’s arrest, as no crime had been committed by Mr. Gray," Mosby said. "They illegally arrested Mr. Gray."

Video taken by a witness showed Gray unable to fully use his legs as he was put into the van.

Gray was not secured with a seat belt, and on the way to central booking, suffered "a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside of the BPD wagon," Mosby said.

He was taken to a hospital, and died on April 19. On Friday, prosecutors charged Rice, Nero and Miller in Gray's death, along with three others, including the van's driver, who faces second-degree murder.

Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor in New York and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said a commanding officer on the scene of Gray’s apprehension should have questioned whether he deserved to be arrested.

"Cops sometimes get emotional, and it’s essential to have patrol supervisors, people out there stopping this," O’Donnell said. "It’s an oversight issue."

Police brass should be held accountable as well, O’Donnell said.

"This is a story of a series of systemic, institutional errors that created these conditions," he said. "If the arresting officers had been trained properly, this would have been far less likely to happen."

Marc Schindler, a former public defender in Baltimore and now the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, said that while the reasons for the chase remain elusive, the pursuit seemed indicative of life in places like Baltimore, which has along history of drug problems and a police department that responded with aggressive street enforcement and massive arrests.

The result has been steep crime reductions. But the city has also paid millions of dollars in settlements to people who have claimed they were victims of excessive force.

Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park, the place where Gray grew up, is a ground zero in that struggle. In a Justice Policy Institute analysis of Baltimore neighborhoods, Gray’s had the highest number of people in prison.

"That provides context for why any reasonable person in that situation, who sees a cop, would start to run," Schindler said. "Because Freddie has been in this situation countless times before, and he knew things weren’t going to end well."

At the same time, Schindler said, police officers have been put in the untenable position of trying to "clean up" communities suffering from a myriad of social and economic problems beyond their control.

"Combine all those things together," Schindler said, "and you get this situation."