A step toward justice for Freddie Gray

Indictments in the Freddie Gray case forever change the relationship between Baltimore police and citizens.

State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby delivered a stinging indictment of the six officers involved in the events leading to Freddie Gray's death, revealing new allegations about his arrest and ride in the back of a police van that depict utterly inhumane treatment of the young man. Based on her account, the officers had no probable cause to chase him, handcuff him, search him or restrain him. They placed him in a dangerous position, unsecured and face down on the floor of the van with his hands and feet bound, and they displayed utter indifference to his calls for help and no sense of urgency to determine whether or how badly he had been injured, much less to render assistance. We would be shocked if an officer treated an animal that way these six are accused of treating Freddie Gray.

The question we now face is at what point police callousness becomes a crime. Ms. Mosby describes some aggressive treatment of Gray, including the use of a leg hold by one of the officers, but she did not indicate that the officers hit him or beat him, nor did she suggest that Gray was subject to a "rough ride" — a term for a practice by some officers of driving police vans erratically to cause prisoners to bang against the walls. She is pursuing a range of charges against the officers, from misconduct in office to second-degree murder, depending on their specific involvement in Gray's arrest, and it is an understatement to say that this case will be the biggest test she has faced in her few months on the job.

This morning, Ms. Mosby was clear, focused and forceful in her accusations against the officers. She displayed considerable skill and poise in denouncing their actions while appealing for peace as the case unfolds — and in making clear that the entire Baltimore Police Department should not be tarred by the actions of these few. We hope and expect that her swift action in bringing charges today will help diminish the likelihood for unrest connected with several large demonstrations set for the next few days. Many Baltimore residents had expected some action in the case today based on Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' announced deadline of May 1 to conclude his investigation. Had Ms. Mosby not been conducting her own, independent probe, in addition to working closely with the police department up to this point, she would not have been in a position to announce charges so quickly, and we might have been in for a rough weekend. The mood instead was jubilant in many corners of the city, where residents cheered and honked their horns in celebration. We only wish Ms. Mosby had done more to explain her independent investigatory process to the public earlier, as it might have offered some reassurance to those who worried that the police department would do whatever was necessary to protect its own.

Whatever challenges Ms. Mosby faces in bringing this case — starting, we'd bet, with an effort by the officers' attorneys to change the venue to anywhere but Baltimore City — we are glad that she is doing so. Not because we are certain of the officers guilt — they must, as Ms. Mosby pointed out, be presumed innocent until a jury finds otherwise — but because we need the kind of public airing of the facts that only a trial can provide.

That didn't happen in Ferguson, Mo., where prosecutors made a half-hearted (at best) effort to secure a grand jury indictment in the death of Michael Brown, or in New York, where a grand jury declined to indict officers in the death of Eric Garner, and so far not in Cleveland, where a grand jury is still considering the death of Tamir Rice. Among recent, highly publicized incidents of black men killed at the hands of police officers, the only one resulting in criminal charges so far was the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina — a much clearer case, given the circumstances and video evidence.

The ambiguity about who was responsible and to what degree in Gray's death is precisely what makes it so important in the national conversation about how police treat the poor and minorities. The case turns not on a split-second decision by one officer during a conflict but on the mundane reality of how police operate on a day-to-day basis in the inner city. As heartless and cruel was the indifference to Gray's well being that Ms. Mosby described, it was apparently nothing any of the six officers involved considered remarkable. They thought so little of Gray's cries for help that they took an extra stop on the way back to the Western District to pick up another prisoner, and when they got to the station, they didn't turn their attention to Gray until after they had taken that other man inside for processing. They appear to have broken a string of departmental regulations and conducted what Ms. Mosby termed an illegal arrest, but had Gray's injuries been any less severe, would they have faced any consequences whatsoever?

Whether Ms. Mosby is able to get convictions of these officers or not, her actions today almost certainly herald a new era in the way Baltimore treats accusations of abuse by the police. According to meticulous reporting by The Sun's Mark Puente, the city has paid more than 100 judgments and settlements in civil suits against police officers during the last five years. In few of those instances did the officers face criminal sanctions, and in many cases they remained on the force. Some officers were the subject of multiple settlements. After today's indictments, ACLU Maryland Executive Director Susan Goering noted that less than 2 percent of police-involved deaths result in prosecutions. "Our systems of justice have been far more willing to treat officers as innocent until proven guilty than they are the communities who are being policed — communities where people are presumed guilty and stopped, searched and arrested without cause," Ms. Goering wrote.

Now Ms. Mosby has set the precedent that officers can face charges of assault and even manslaughter and murder for a case that is less clear cut than many that previously resulted in no prosecution at all. She promised today that she would seek charges in any case in her jurisdiction, and when asked what would change the culture of the Baltimore Police Department, she responded with one word: "accountability," adding, "you're getting it today."

What will that accountability mean in practice? How will it affect the way officers do their jobs, and what impact will that, in turn, have on Baltimore's fight against crime? Only time will tell, but the events of the last week clearly demonstrated that we could not continue without having that conversation. Ms. Mosby's decision to pursue such an aggressive set of charges ensures that we will.

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