Baltimore is experiencing a spike in violent crime — not its first and most likely not its last. During the past two weeks, we have seen 50 shootings and 18 homicides, including 10 shootings in a single day — twice. As is often the case when Baltimore is hit by such an outbreak, people are looking for a simple explanation, and some have found a ready one at hand — that the criminal charges for six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray have dispirited the city's police and made them wary of aggressive law enforcement. When officers see what happened to those six, the thinking goes, they worry that the are going to be prosecuted for simply doing their jobs.
It would be hard to think of a worse insult to Baltimore's police force, and it's most perplexing that it's being advanced by police officers themselves. Lt. Kenneth Butler, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black Baltimore officers, said police "feel as though the state's attorney will hang them out to dry." Veteran Lt. Victor Gearhart said those demanding justice for Gray's death "are going to get the police force they want, and God help them." Are we really to believe that treating criminal suspects the way the officers involved allegedly treated Freddie Gray is not only the norm but essential to Baltimore police work? We would like to hope that the vast majority of officers on the force listened to the allegations of those officers' treatment of Gray and shuddered right along with the rest of us. If not, God help us, indeed.
We are the first to admit that State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby is prosecuting the alleged misconduct in this case more aggressively than has been the norm for Baltimore and that it is impossible to know what a judge and jury will make of the charges, which range up to second-degree murder. However, it is worth noting that Ms. Mosby and her team of prosecutors have information that we don't. We simply have to wait to find out whether the charges she brought are truly justified.
Those making the case that officers are holding back from doing their jobs effectively focus on one element of the charges Ms. Mosby brought — the allegation that the initial arrest of Gray was illegal. Police said they arrested Gray after finding a switchblade knife in his pants pocket. Ms. Mosby said in announcing her charges that the knife was legal in Maryland and therefore the officers had no cause to arrest him. The officers' defenders insist it was illegal under city law, which is slightly different from the state code.
Let us, for the moment, give the police the benefit of the doubt and assume that even if the knife wasn't illegal, it was close enough in appearance to an illegal knife that the officers involved might have reasonably believed that it was. It would, indeed, be difficult for officers to do their jobs if they believed an honest mistake could lead to prosecution.
But the officers who have latched onto that detail of Ms. Mosby's narrative of the case surely must have heard the rest of it. Like the parts in which she described officers chasing Gray, apprehending him, restraining him and searching him with no probable cause. Or the sequence after the disputed knife was found in which, according to Ms. Mosby, officers handcuffed Gray and placed him face-down with his hands and feet bound on the floor of a police van with no seat belt. Or the several times the officers involved allegedly checked on Gray's condition but did nothing even after he became unresponsive.
None of this has been proven in court, of course, but it is the information Baltimore police officers have on which to form their judgments. We can believe that honorable officers could look at the question of the knife and picture themselves in the shoes of the six police who now face charges. But we certainly hope they don't identify with the rest of it.
What is so striking about Ms. Mosby's account is the idea that six different officers would all treat a human being as callously as they are accused of treating Freddie Gray. Those who now complain that they're afraid to do their jobs are only lending credence to the notion that such reckless debasement is business as usual for the Baltimore City police. As damaging to police-community relations as Gray's death has been, that would be worse.