Black, white, blue and Freddie Gray: Urgent lessons about race and policing from Baltimore
EDITOR'S CHOICE | 26.04.2015

Black, white, blue and Freddie Gray: Urgent lessons about race and policing from Baltimore

In the first episode of the HBO drama "The Wire," Baltimore's Western Police District is introduced as a place where officers "collect bodies, split heads… the Western District way." On April 12, 2015, in the real Western District of Baltimore, Freddie Gray was detained by police. Before long, his neck and larynx were broken, and he died in a coma seven days later.

Here is what we know about the Freddie Gray case, based on accounts from the Baltimore Police Department and locals who filmed the encounter: On the morning of his arrest, Gray was approached by bicycle police and began to run. Officers pursued and caught him. Within 11 minutes of his detention, officers were seen dragging a wailing Gray, whose legs appeared to be injured, into a police transport van.

When Gray left the van, he could not speak, he could not breathe, and he was taken to a trauma clinic. He was in a coma within an hour and dead within a week.

Here is what we don't know about the Freddie Gray case: everything else. Where is the evidence that Gray did anything wrong in the first place? Why did the police chase him down if they lacked probable cause? Why did they then arrest him?

And, crucially, what happened inside that van?

Now, here is what you probably don't know about the state of Maryland. In a 2011 analysis, Maryland was named as one of the deadliest states in the country for police killings. This year, the ACLU of Maryland identified 109 people who died in encounters with police in Maryland between 2010 and 2014. Accounting for relative population size, black people died at the hands of Maryland police 10 times as often as white people.

As Rev. Todd Yeary, political director of the Maryland NAACP, told me, "The Western District way is no longer limited to Baltimore City — it is much bigger here in Maryland."

Gray's death comes at a pivotal moment in our country's understanding of race and police violence. Three years ago, the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a self-appointed neighborhood watchman gave many people their first insight into the reality of disproportionate use of force.

Last summer's shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson kicked off a deep and often painful soul-search into the systemic forces that lead police officers to both fear and devalue the lives of black men and women.

Since then, the names of police abuse victims continue scrolling across the evening news: Eric Garner, choked to death on Staten Island; 12-year-old Tamir Rice, gunned down in an Ohio park; Walter Scott, shot in the back in South Carolina, among many others.

Taken together, these cases add up to a damning indictment of the way American police exercise force, particularly against men of color.

Some are quick to write off the protesters and activists, like those who crowded the streets of Baltimore this week, rush to the scene of the latest killing with cardboard signs and chants of "black lives matter." But these frustrated men and women are only driving attention to an issue that has always been there. They are only giving voice to a centuries-old wave of dissatisfaction that is always roiling just under the surface in this country.

As it stands, there is a blunt truth to the recent statement from Gray's family attorney, renowned Baltimore litigator William Murphy, Jr: "The lesson here was that he should have run, and he didn't run fast enough."

Now that the public is paying attention, what can we do? How we can grow out of this crisis, and indeed the last 250 years of American history, to begin to chip away at the lack of trust that shades nearly every interaction that black people have with police?

Any conversation about policing in the 21st century ultimately comes down to effective community policing. Community policing is in many ways the antithesis of aggressive policing and the racial profiling that inevitably accompanies it. It is a commitment to quality over quantity when it comes to arrests; textured information that prioritizes truth over assumptions. It is a pledge to work with community members to protect and humanize public safety — to protect and serve, with an emphasis on serving.

However, in order for community policing to be effective, there needs to be a policy context that nurtures its success. Given the high levels of police violence in Maryland, there are several urgently needed reforms that must take place there — and, indeed, all over the country.

First, Maryland, like every state, needs a strong body camera law. Body cameras not only impact the way that police interact with people; they impact the way people interact with police. If the police officers who chased Gray had known their every move could later be dissected in a court of law, they very well may have acted with more restraint. If Gray had known that his interaction with the police was going to be recorded — instead of falling into the equivalent of an airplane's broken black box — perhaps he would not have run.

It was encouraging to hear this week that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, plans to sign a bill that would enable police to wear cameras across the state. It seems that there is also a need for cameras in the back of police vans.

Second, Baltimore and Maryland need what nearly every American city and state needs: better and more frequent use-of-force training for police officers, personality tests that help weed out police recruits who are prone to violence on the front end, and stronger mechanisms for dismissing bad apples on the back end.

Reports emerged this week that Lt. Brian Rice, the police supervisor who initially chased Gray through the streets of Baltimore, had been accused of a pattern of violence earlier in his career. What's more, it appears that Gray was not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police van with serious injuries; these van rides have become known as "rough rides," with police accused of leaving suspects without seatbelts and taking hard turns.

These anecdotes reveal an unfortunate trend in our justice system: too many police departments tolerate the dangerous minority of officers who act like schoolyard bullies - even in places, like Baltimore, where the political and police power structures are led by people of color.

As New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said last year, "My intention going forward is to ensure that we will aggressively seek to get those out of the department who should not be here - the brutal, the corrupt, the racist, the incompetent." Every police commissioner in America should repeat some version of that sentence - and then, much more importantly, follow through.

Finally, Maryland, like the rest of the nation, needs to correct the deep and ingrained power imbalance between police officers and citizens. Right now, officers in the state have an unfair advantage when it comes to the legal system. Something called the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights allows police officers who have been disciplined or charged with a crime to spend 10 days before they are interrogated - a right enjoyed by no other class of citizen.

When police officers are accused of serious crimes, they should be treated like all other Americans: granted the presumption of innocence but given no special rights beyond that.

Additionally, data collection in Maryland is spotty: There is currently no law that requires police to report which or how many civilians they killed. Fortunately, Hogan has announced that he will sign a bill to require law enforcement agency to report every individual killed by officers in the line of duty, as well as their race and ethnicity.

We urgently need to fix this there and all across the country.

Structural police reform is in fact possible. In 2001, when the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the Los Angeles Police Department to clean up its act, then-LAPD Police Chief Bratton was able to improve community-police relations and bring down crime at the same time.

Change can also come from the streets. In New York City in 2013, a massive public awareness campaign by the NAACP and other organizations made stop-and-frisk policing one of the key issues in the mayoral debate, and led to the passage of the Community Safety Act.

A vow to end the stop-and-frisk era was key to getting Bill de Blasio elected mayor. In 2014, his first year in office, stop and frisks declined by 75% from the year before. Since then, in response to Garner's death, de Blasio and Bratton have prioritized more and better training, and should be commended for their forward thinking.

To set an example for the nation and to ensure Gray's death was not in vain, it is time for both Baltimore and Maryland to build a police force that is capable of protecting the lives of all its citizens. The police have their bill of rights; the time has come to reaffirm the rights of the rest of us.

Jealous is former president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a partner at and runs the Baltimore office of Kapor Capital, a social impact venture capital firm.

BENJAMIN TODD JEALOUS, nydailynews.com

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