Whether inaction by Baltimore Police Officer William Porter during the arrest of Freddie Gray amounted to a crime is a difficult question, and we were not surprised to see the jury in his trial struggle with it. Judge Barry Williams' decision to declare a mistrial after jurors failed to come to a unanimous decision on any of the four charges Mr. Porter faced no doubt will serve as a disappointment to those who wished for the verdict in this case to send a clear and unambiguous message.
What the trial revealed with great clarity, though, were the failings of the Baltimore City Police Department. We're not sure whose depiction of it was worse: the prosecution's account of police who express a callous indifference to the lives of those they arrest and then lie to cover for each other, or the defense's picture of a department so rife with incompetence that their client's failures were entirely unexceptional.
Prosecutors didn't just accuse Mr. Porter of lying or engaging in a cover-up. They suggested that the department has a "stop snitching" code for its officers just as repulsive as the one on the streets. And the defense attorneys didn't just portray Mr. Porter as an inexperienced cop who was following the lead of experienced officers. They drew a picture of a department where training is cursory and where standards of conduct are routinely ignored — if officers even bother to read them in the first place.
But what the lawyers said was nowhere near as damaging as the testimony of the police officers themselves. Baltimore police called as character witnesses for Mr. Porter's defense said that they almost never followed general orders requiring the use of seat belts in police vans, notwithstanding the department's multi-year crusade to improve compliance or the memo strengthening the requirement that was issued shortly before Gray's arrest. Mr. Porter testified that he didn't seat belt Gray because he was afraid that doing so would expose his gun — despite the fact that Gray's hands were cuffed behind his back, his feet were shackled and he was not by the defendant's own account causing any disturbance. What's worse, an 18-year veteran of the Baltimore department who is now the police chief in Charlottesville, Va., backed that up as entirely reasonable.
In a statement recorded shortly after Gray's death and played for the jury, Mr. Porter said he didn't believe Gray when he claimed to be hurt because people routinely fake injury so they can go to the hospital rather than jail, and that medics don't come when officers call unless it's an "exigent" situation. In other words, there was nothing unusual about officers' decision to drive around West Baltimore making multiple stops with Gray in the van after he complained that he was hurt.
The officers who testified said they could only check their email at a couple of outmoded computers at the district station. They had no government-issued smart phones, and the app for checking mail on their personal phones didn't work. The department had no way of proving whether Mr. Porter read the email about the seat belting policy, nor could it say for sure whether it was read at roll call. The officers said they viewed the department's general orders as more akin to advice than actual rules, and that each individual's judgment trumped all.
Time will tell whether justice for Freddie Gray will involve criminal convictions of any of the officers involved in his arrest, but the process has already served as a stinging indictment of the police department. As the jurors in Baltimore were giving up, reports emerged from Ferguson, Mo., that officials were near an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice on reforms related to the federal civil rights investigation into that city's policing practices that stemmed from the killing of Michael Brown last year. It is expected to involve extensive re-training of officers and federal monitoring to ensure compliance. Baltimore is in the midst of its own federal civil rights investigation, and if the testimony we've heard in recent days is any indication, this city's police force is in need of a major overhaul, too. Officer Porter may have gotten a mistrial, but the verdict on the department for which he serves could not be more clear.