By Mark Puente and Doug Donovan
Officials and community leaders welcomed Tuesday the Justice Department's announcement that it is opening a criminal investigation into Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore police custody _ an incident that continues to spark angry demonstrations.
"The Department of Justice has been monitoring the developments in Baltimore, Md., regarding the death of Freddie Gray," spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in a statement. "Based on preliminary information, the Department of Justice has officially opened this matter and is gathering information to determine whether any prosecutable civil rights violation occurred."
The federal agency did not release details about the investigation, but said it would include the FBI, the U.S. attorney's office and civil rights lawyers within the department.
The announcement came amid growing protests _ hundreds demonstrated Tuesday evening in front of the Western District police station, where the 25-year-old was taken April 12, before being hospitalized and dying a week later. Protesters wore T-shirts with the slogan #Justice for Freddie and chanted "No justice, no peace."
Meanwhile, police gave members of a Baltimore City Council public safety committee updates on the status of their investigation into Gray's death. After the hearing, Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said the Police Department will cooperate fully with the FBI in the federal probe and will hand over copies of all the documents it has.
Police said they are trying to determine whether Gray was properly restrained in a transport van, where officials have said his injuries occurred. He suffered a broken vertebra after he was arrested near the Gilmor Homes complex in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
Officials and activists said a federal investigation _ which will parallel the probe being conducted by local police and prosecutors _ was needed.
"I think folks have been crying for this," said City Councilman Nick Mosby, whose district includes Gilmor Homes.
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the extra scrutiny from the Justice Department is important because the police do not have a good record of investigating each other.
"Lots of cases have not been brought to justice in Baltimore," she said. "Families need to get justice for their loved ones."
The Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services Office is already conducting a "collaborative review" of the city Police Department. The review is being handled by Hillard Heintze, a Chicago-based consulting firm that is examining the agency's use-of-force reports and investigations, training procedures and policies.
The review was requested last fall by the mayor and the police commissioner days after The Baltimore Sun revealed that the city had paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in more than 102 lawsuits alleging police misconduct since 2011. The Sun also found that some officers were involved in multiple lawsuits, and there were significant gaps in the systems used to monitor police misconduct.
While the collaborative review covers the Police Department's general policies and procedures, the investigation announced Tuesday will focus on Gray's death, which has brought international attention to Baltimore amid growing outrage over how police in the United States treat black men.
Baltimore police have said Gray was stopped because he "fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence" and was injured while he was being transported by van to a district station. They said his injuries were not consistent with the use of force.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she supports the Justice Department's new investigation.
"Whenever a police force conducts an internal investigation, there are always appropriate questions of transparency and impartiality," she said. "My goal has always been to get answers to the questions so many of us are still asking with regards to Mr. Gray's death. ... This outside review will assist us in getting to the bottom of what happened to Mr. Gray in the most objective and transparent way possible."
The federal probe will be similar to one conducted in Missouri after Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in August. Brown's death sparked nationwide protests over the way white police officers treat blacks.
In Missouri, federal authorities reviewed physical, ballistic, forensic and crime scene evidence; medical reports and autopsy reports, including an independent autopsy performed by the U.S. Department of Defense Armed Forces Medical Examiner Service; Wilson's personnel records; audio and video recordings; and Internet postings, according to an 86-page report released in March.
FBI agents, local detectives and county and federal prosecutors worked cooperatively to interview more than 140 purported witnesses, the report said.
Officials reviewed cellphone data, searched social media sites, and tracked down dozens of leads from residents as well as dedicated law enforcement email addresses and tip lines to acquire as much information as possible, the report said.
But federal officials concluded that there was no evidence to disprove Wilson's testimony that he feared for his safety or to show that Brown had his hands up before he was shot. A county grand jury decided not to issue charges against Wilson.
Some Baltimore lawmakers, including state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, have joined with community leaders in calling for a similar federal probe here.
Several members of Maryland's congressional delegation had asked Tuesday that the Justice Department investigate Gray's death.
"Freddie Gray's family and the residents of the City of Baltimore deserve to know what happened to him while he was in police custody. We need answers," Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder in asking for an investigation.
The lawmakers added, "While the vast majority of police officers act within the law to serve and protect their communities, incidents like this degrade the trust necessary to maintain the relationship between law enforcement and communities. We urge the Department of Justice to swiftly conduct all necessary investigations. We need the facts to restore the public confidence in the Baltimore Police Department."
Gov. Larry Hogan's spokesman said in a statement that the governor "has every confidence that the state's attorney and the U.S. Department of Justice will conduct thorough, impartial and transparent investigations into the incident, in order to provide Mr. Gray's family and the community with the answers they deserve."
But some want an even broader investigation into Gray's death.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young asked Hogan to direct the Maryland attorney general to conduct an independent investigation. Through a spokesman, Young said the federal investigation is a step needed to restore public trust in the police force but should be expanded.
"The Department of Justice needs to conduct a full-scale civil rights investigation into the practices and procedures of the Baltimore City Police Department in full and separate from this tragic case," said Lester Davis, Young's spokesman.
Tawanda Jones, whose brother died during a 2013 traffic stop in Northeast Baltimore, has repeatedly asked for a federal probe into that incident. She called the Justice Department announcement Tuesday "an excellent start," but said it is not enough.
"They need to go back to at least 2000 and reopen all of these in-custody deaths," she said.
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