TWO OR three times a day on average, suspects in the custody of the Baltimore police are turned away by the city jail because they are deemed too battered, beaten, bruised or otherwise injured or sick to be processed and admitted. The police are forced to head instead for a hospital emergency room to seek treatment for suspects suffering from head injuries, broken bones, hypertension and an array of other afflictions.
The frequency of such occurrences was detailed over the weekend by the Baltimore Sun, which obtained records from the city’s detention center under the Maryland Public Information Act. According to those records, the jail has turned away nearly 2,600 ailing detainees since June 2012 — about 2 percent of all bookings.
That staggering figure suggests the Baltimore police are heedless, at best, of the physical welfare of suspects in their custody. It also may help explain how Freddie Gray could have pleaded for medical care at least five times after he was arrested last month before the officers who detained him bothered to summon a paramedic — by which time it was too late.
As is now widely known, Mr. Gray died of his injuries; among them was a mostly severed spinal cord — sustained, it is suspected, while he was confined for 45 minutes in the back of a police van, his hands and feet shackled. That the officers discounted or disregarded his pleas, as alleged by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, appears to fit a pattern of negligent police conduct.
The police understand — and after 2,600 reaffirmations in three years, they should be acutely aware — that they are obliged to seek medical attention for suspects who are sick or injured before the jail will admit them. Yet somehow that obligation doesn’t seem institutionally ingrained in cops on the beat.
Some suspects may fake or exaggerate ailments to avoid lockup, a phenomenon that led one officer to suspect that Mr. Gray was suffering from “jailitis.” But judging by the number of suspects who are turned away at the Baltimore jail, it seems likely that police are routinely ignoring genuine and grave injuries, notwithstanding how they occurred.
The Justice Department’s civil rights investigation of the city police, announced last week by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, should take account of these injured detainees, including the causes and circumstances of their injuries and whether police are adequately trained and instructed in assessing them. And it should examine whether African American suspects are more frequently hurt and denied prompt medical care than other detainees.
Police officers have dangerous and physically demanding jobs. Some suspects must be subdued and restrained in the course of arrests, and what happens on the street isn’t always pretty. That doesn’t absolve officers of the responsibility of professionalism — a responsibility that includes an obligation to safeguard the health of detainees in their custody. Baltimore police may need a refresher course on that.