Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore is the latest in a rash of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police.
In what has become a much-too-familiar pattern, there are questions about how Gray died and whether the officers who arrested him used excessive force, causing the neck injury that severed his spinal cord and, apparently, killed him.
Bystander video taken during Gray’s arrest shows that he was conscious and apparently not severely injured when he was loaded into a police van on April 12. Gray, 25, later died of a neck injury. The circumstances suggest that Gray’s transportation may have involved a so-called “nickel ride,” in which officers deliberately drive at high speeds and suddenly stop and start, a technique used to punish arrested suspects and which has been known to sometimes cause serious injury.
But Gray’s initial arrest may not have happened if not for an antiquated provision of Baltimore’s municipal code, which prohibits the possession of a “switchblade” knife. Gray had allegedly been running from the police, for reasons that still aren’t clear, and after a brief chase, officers found the knife clipped to his pocket in a closed position — he was not alleged to have brandished the knife or threatened anyone with it.
The arrest charge recalls an issue we’ve been covering in New York City for months — the NYPD’s enforcement of a half-century old law against so-called “gravity knives.” The law was the subject of a lengthy investigation we published last year which found as many as 60,000 questionable arrests in ten years, making the statute one of the top-ten most-prosecuted crimes in New York City.
Many legal experts — from defense attorneys to labor unions to an official body of the New York State Judiciary — say New York’s law is often being applied, incorrectly, to common pocket knives that the legislature never intended to ban. We documented the arrests of construction workers, building supers — even a bible camp counselor — for simply possessing a knife that most people would regard as benign, if somewhat utilitarian. In fact, under the NYPD’s interpretation of the gravity knife statute, virtually every pocket knife on the market can be considered an illegal weapon, regardless of size or criminal intent.
The municipal code under which Gray was arrested resembles New York’s law in several ways, and its peculiar wording is equally ill-suited to modern technology; as we discovered when we looked at gravity knife laws in New York, knife statutes often have not kept up with current knife designs.
While news reports have described the knife Gray was carrying as a “switchblade,” the actual police report (see charging documents at bottom of page) describes it as a “spring assisted, one hand opening knife,” which has become among the most common on the market in recent years. (Update 5/1/14: At a news conference announcing that six police officers were being charged in Gray’s death, state’s attorney for Baltimore Marilyn J. Mosby confirmed that the knife was indeed “not a switchblade and is lawful under Maryland law.”)
Popular models typically feature a “thumb stud” on the blade, designed for one-handed opening. The user starts opening the knife manually, and then a spring takes over, “assisting” in deploying the blade the rest of the way. Switchblades, by comparison, open with a button or switch contained in the handle of the knife.
Here’s the difference between a spring assist knife and a true switchblade:
Switchblade knives are illegal in many jurisdictions, and in most places they’re defined as opening with a button or lever in the handle of the blade. It’s an important legal distinction, one that was recognized by the federal government in 2009 when they clarified that spring assisted knives are not, legally, switchblades.
But when Baltimore’s statute was written 60 years ago, it’s language was crafted more vaguely than laws elsewhere. The municipal code currently bans “any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade.” In that way, it differs from switchblade bans in most areas — including New York — which rely on the blade/handle distinction.
The feds sought fit to clarify the federal version of the switchblade ban because spring-assist knives — which were explicitly designed to comply with decades-old switchblade prohibitions — are far from exotic in today’s marketplace. You can find them at some of the country’s largest retailers; hardware stores like Home Depot and outdoor gear shops like REI routinely stock them.
New York’s gravity knife statute is similarly outdated, and turns on similarly minute differences in knife design. The law here in New York defines a gravity knife as any knife that opens with “the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force.” But since the 1990s, knives have increasingly been designed for opening with one hand — the idea is that you can keep the other hand free for other tasks. But it also means that the knife has to open fairly easily. The result is that almost any knife can be opened with a vigorous wrist flick, and can therefore be illegal.
That ambiguity also effectively means that any knife an officer wants to treat as illegal can actually be illegal. When we looked at how knife laws are enforced in New York, we found dramatic racial disparity in arrests involving knives. Black and Hispanic suspects make up 86 percent of such arrests, and more revealingly, are nearly twice as likely to be arrested for carrying a knife than white counterparts who were also carrying knives.
Gravity knife prosecutions in New York have dramatically increased over the past decade, and contributed substantially to NYPD claims about the efficacy of stop and frisk, which was supported by the contention that the tactic took weapons “off the street.” About 80 percent of those weapons were knives, however, not guns, the weapon most commonly used in urban violence.
Baltimore’s city code banning switchblades resembles the New York’s gravity knife law in other important ways. Both were passed during an era of fear over youth gangs — Baltimore’s in 1950 and New York’s in 1956 — and of near-hysteria over the dangers of switchblade knives, associated at the time with “juvenile delinquency.” And neither statute has changed in the past 60 years, even as knife designs — not to mention the weapon of choice for violent gangs, which, today, is clearly the handgun — have changed quite a bit.
The legal distinctions made about how a knife opens are pretty empty — kitchen knives are probably responsible for more knife crimes than any other type. And both Baltimore and New York have some pretty nonsensical distinctions in their laws. Neither Baltimore nor the state of Maryland, for example, has a length restriction for folding knives. That means that a “spring assisted” knife with a 2.5 inch blade would be illegal, but a folding knife with a 12 inch blade would be fine. New York, similarly, allows knives that don’t fold — “fixed blade” knives — to be carried as long as they are under four inches, while a shorter knife that can be “flicked” could get you sent to prison.
It’s possible the Baltimore police would have found another reason to arrest Gray, but an outdated law gave them a ready-made excuse. It’s something that happens every day in New York City, whether for a gravity knife or spitting in public.
Jon Campbell is a staff writer for the Voice, covering criminal justice, legal issues, and the occasional mutant park squirrel.