Baltimore protests show a realistic frustration with police reform

A mourner pats the hearse holding the casket of Freddie Gray outside New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore on April 27. (CNS photo/Olivia Obineme, Catholic Review)

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Freddie’s Law.

Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died of a spinal-cord injury earlier this month, an injury that occurred—somehow—after his arrest by Baltimore police on April 12. According to the Washington Post, “Federal and local authorities are trying to determine how the injury occurred.” Gray was detained after running at the sight of a police officer, but though he had been arrested before on drug charges, this time police found only a switchblade in his pocket. The shadowy circumstances of his death have led to protest demonstrations and riots in the city.


Not that we’re without theories. Also according to the Post, police “appeared to be focusing on one segment of Gray’s 30-minute trip in a police transport van. They said Gray, who was handcuffed and eventually put in leg irons, was never seat-belted, a violation of policy. Gray had made several pleas for medical attention, police said, and officers should have called for an ambulance immediately after his arrest.”

A “violation of policy”? It should be a violation of the law for police to disregard the safety of detainees or, even worse, to deliberately expose them to possible injury.

But “rough rides,” also known as “nickel rides” in Baltimore, have been tolerated for years.

The Atlantic’s David A. Graham explains: “Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn’t common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it’s more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it’s a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore’s, millions of dollars in damages.

The Baltimore Sun has the details on two such cases: “Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride.”

The “rough ride” is an appalling practice, akin to letting prosecutors get a few punches to a defendant’s stomach before the judge and jury come in with their persnickety concerns for civil rights. It is also symptomatic of the “tough on crime” mania that has corroded the rights and human dignity of Americans, including a disproportionate number of black men, suspected of even tangential involvement with wrongdoing. Many are irrevocably harmed without being found guilty of anything—as in the case of Kalief Browder, who spent three years in jail in New York, beginning in the middle of his sophomore year of high school, awaiting trial for a robbery charge that was finally dismissed. But just as we’re unlikely to see a Freddie’s Law, mandating the safe transport of police detainees, we’re unlikely to see a Kalief’s Law putting some teeth into the right for a speedy trial.

Police departments may object to laws mandating, say, seat belts for detainees in transport as micro-legislating. But police officers in Maryland and 13 other states benefit from some very detailed laws, collectively known as a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. According to the Marshall Project’s Eli Hager, “Maryland’s LEOBoR includes a provision that the officers cannot be forced to make any statements for 10 days after the incident…. It is partly because of this ‘cooling-off period’ — to critics, a convenient delay for the cops to tidy up their stories — that so little has been said by the only people who know what took place” in the Freddie Gray case. The law in Maryland also regulates any interrogation of police officers suspected of misconduct, mandating bathroom breaks and banning threats of “transfer, dismissal, or disciplinary action.” The idea that law-enforcement officials should have a separate Bill of Rights from the civilians they are charged to protect only exacerbates tensions in cities like Baltimore.

Some reform may be possible after Baltimore. The New York Times’ Peter Baker writes that the pendulum is swinging back after the tough-on-crime excesses of the 1990s, with “Democrats and Republicans alike… putting forth ideas to reduce the prison population and rethink a system that has locked up a generation of young men, particularly African-Americans.” So far, the discussion has centered on money-saving alternatives to long prison sentences; legislation that affects police departments is a far tougher sell.

Roll Call’s Shawn Zeller writes that there has been little interest in Washington for ideas such as “federal funding to provide incentives for police departments to hire independent prosecutors to handle cases of alleged police brutality, instead of the local district attorneys who work with the police on a regular basis and might be beholden to them.” The most substantive action since last summer, when incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities widespread protests against police brutality, has been the reauthorization of a lapsed federal law requiring states to report on the number of people killed in police custody.

The initial reaction of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican presidential aspirant most identified with criminal-justice reform, was also discouraging. In an interview with talk-show host Laura Ingraham, he joked, “I came through the train on Baltimore last night. I’m glad the train didn’t stop.” He also blamed protests in that city on a “lack of fathers” and a “lack of a moral code in our society.”

Such comments only show how important it is to listen to the residents of neighborhoods in Baltimore and other cities most affected by aggressive and counterproductive police tactics. It would be nice if they could get results by adopting the letter-writing techniques of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but they have no choice but to raise their voices a little louder.

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Joshua DeCuir
3 years 8 months ago
This would have been a more interesting column if, alongside the swipe at Rand Paul, it had perhaps nodded to the role Martin O'Malley's policing policies might have played in this: Especially since O'Malley seems to be a favorite among some progressive Catholics to challenge Hillary Clinton.


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