Pubdate: Sun, 03 May 2015
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2015 The Baltimore Sun Company


Freddie Gray's Death Has Sparked Discussions of Many Injustices, but 
at Its Heart Is the Breakdown in Relations Between Police and the Community

The death of Freddie Gray and the riots that followed have brought 
Baltimore's problems to the forefront of national, even 
international, attention.

The drug addiction, poverty, failing schools, health disparities, 
deteriorating housing, broken families and unemployment that plague 
neighborhoods like the one where Gray lived and was arrested in have 
been on full display, and they have become a part of the larger 
discussion about what it would mean to bring about justice in the 
wake of his death.

It's a conversation Baltimore and many cities like it need to have, 
and in the weeks and months ahead, we intend to play a role in fostering it.

But as important as all those issues are in understanding the context 
of Baltimore's present unrest, they are not what led to two weeks of 
peaceful protests and two nights of mayhem and violence.

First and foremost, Baltimore needs to address the prevalent and 
well-documented brutality some members of its police force inflict on 
residents of mostly poor and minority communities. State's Attorney 
Marilyn Mosby brought the focus back to that issue Friday with her 
indictments of six officers in the case, describing their actions as 
callously indifferent to Gray's pleas for medical attention.

What has become readily apparent is that far more people in Baltimore 
have experienced that kind of treatment, though thankfully with a 
less tragic end, than we might like to admit.

The past week has seen an avalanche of accounts from those who grew 
up in inner-city Baltimore of their encounters with brutal, 
dehumanizing policing tactics.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who grew up near the epicenter of 
Monday's riots, wrote that "everyone I knew who lived in that world 
regarded the police not with admiration and respect but fear and 
caution." D. Watkins, the Baltimore native, author and Coppin State 
professor, wrote in The New York Times about run-ins with the cops: 
"To us, the Baltimore Police Department is a group of terrorists, 
funded by our tax dollars, who beat on people in our community daily, 
almost never having to explain or pay for their actions."

There's more here than just anecdotal accounts.

Last fall, The Sun's Mark Puente documented more than 100 instances 
in the last five years when the city paid settlements or judgments in 
police brutality cases totaling nearly $6 million, with a like amount 
spent on legal fees. In virtually all instances, the charges against 
the victims were dropped, yet some officers were named in multiple 
such suits without the city taking notice.

Complaints of excessive force and strained relations between the 
community and police are nothing new - they were also at issue the 
last time Baltimore saw riots, in1968 - and they aren't unique to 
this city, either.

But they have become amplified as the war on drugs has led to a 
massive increase in enforcement in neighborhoods like Gray's.

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, contemplating a run for president, is 
finding himself on the hot seat for the aggressive policing tactics 
he encouraged while mayor more than a decade ago, a time when the 
equivalent of nearly one out of every six Baltimore residents was 
arrested in a given year. Prosecutors didn't even bother to file 
charges in a third of the cases.

The zero-tolerance strategy led to a lawsuit by the NAACP and ACLU 
that was settled years after Mr. O'Malley had left for Annapolis, 
with the city agreeing to pay $870,000 and accept outside monitoring 
of its arrests for quality-of-life crimes.

After violence broke out last week, Mr. O'Malley cut short a trip to 
Ireland, but he found himself heckled by residents of West Baltimore 
over his policies while mayor.

Yet Mr. O'Malley spoke some truth in defending himself when he noted 
that "In all my years of mayor I never had one community leader ever 
ask for less of a police presence in their neighborhood." Indeed, 
there is a broader context here, and it is that the heavy enforcement 
in inner-city Baltimore didn't spring out of nowhere.

It was a reaction to the real and present threat of violent crime 
that, in the decade before Mr. O'Malley became mayor, resulted in 
more than 300 homicides every year - most of them in neighborhoods 
like Freddie Gray's. Murders immediately dropped below that horrific 
level after Mr. O'Malley introduced tough New York-style policing here.

But what the former mayor has been stubbornly unable to accept is 
that crime continued to drop after he left City Hall, even as the 
number of arrests plummeted.

In 2013, when violence was ticking up in the city (though still well 
below the levels when he was mayor), Mr. O'Malley publicly made the 
case that the city needed to start arresting more people, despite 
data showing no real correlation between violent crime and the total 
number of arrests.

Clearly, the answer is not simply for the police to stop enforcing 
the laws. As much as we believe the nation has erred in treating drug 
addiction primarily as a problem of criminal justice rather than 
public health, the truth is that not all drug offenders are 
nonviolent, and innocent people in neighborhoods like 
Sandtown-Winchester pay a terrible price for it.

But there must be another way, one that keeps communities safe 
without dehumanizing their residents in the process.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts say they 
have been working for the last two years to find it. Mr. Batts has 
proclaimed himself a "reform commissioner," and he has been visible 
in community meetings, beefed up foot patrols to encourage more 
face-to-face contact between officers and citizens and disbanded a 
unit that had been the subject of many use-of-force complaints.

But whatever the merits of their efforts, they clearly have not won 
over those who felt persecuted by the police, and it's easy to see 
why. The mayor and commissioner have been slow or ineffectual at 
pushing through the kind of concrete reforms that would offer 
residents tangible proof that the department was really trying to change.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake was unable to get any other local government 
leaders to join her push to reform legislation that limits police 
departments' ability to discipline officers; she didn't even get 
Commissioner Batts to testify in favor of it.

The city has been discussing equipping officers with body cameras to 
record their interactions with the public since at least September, 
but the best the mayor has been able to offer is a pilot program by 
the end of the year. We understand that there are complexities 
involved, but don't the present circumstances argue for accelerating 
the process?

After Mr. Puente's stories ran, the mayor promised to start posting 
information about police brutality settlements online and to consider 
ending a practice that barred those receiving settlements from 
discussing their cases publicly.

The first is sort-of done, the latter not at all.

Meanwhile, it's not clear that Mr. Batts' reform message is even 
getting through to his own department. Last year, a city surveillance 
camera captured footage of an officer beating a man at a crowded 
North Avenue bus stop. The camera operator flagged the incident the 
night it happened, and the department's Internal Affairs division 
knew about it, yet the officer remained on the streets for two months 
until the victim's lawyer obtained the footage and released it to the 
media. A department order to secure suspects with seat belts in the 
back of police vans was emailed to officers just three days before 
Freddie Gray was placed, handcuffed and shackled, face-down on the 
floor of one. What are we to make of the Fraternal Order of Police's 
excuse for its members' failure to follow the rule that many officers 
probably didn't read the email?

Ms. Mosby's indictment of the six officers may have momentarily 
lowered the temperature in the public outrage over aggressive police 
tactics. What the outcome of those cases will be and how the public 
will react, we can't know. But unless the mayor and commissioner take 
some concrete steps soon - putting cameras on officers or putting 
them in vans, for example - the outrage will come back, sooner or 
later. The protesters are demanding justice for Freddie Gray, but 
what they really want goes much deeper than that.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom