Police Commissioner Kevin Davis’ decision to bow to the inevitable and dismiss charges against the last police officer who faced possible discipline as a result of Freddie Gray’s death means that justice, as many people in this city see it, will never be done. Gray was perfectly healthy the morning he was chased by officers and arrested for no particularly good reason, and an hour later, he was lying in the back of a police van with catastrophic injuries to his neck. That had to be somebody’s fault, many believed and still believe, and the inability of prosecutors and the police department to mete out any significant sanctions for the six officers who played roles in his arrest and transport can only be the result of a police department that was quick to close ranks around its own.
Maybe there’s truth to that, and maybe not. After all the trials and police disciplinary proceedings,we still don’t know what happened in the back of that van. Neither the brief but intense investigation by the Baltimore Police Department nor the parallel one State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby says she conducted nor the nine-month administrative investigations by the Montgomery and Howard county police departments answer the question. And so all the cases, criminal and administrative, fell apart on the same lack of evidence. Indeed, given the flaws in the administrative investigations exposed by the attorneys for Officer Caesar Goodston and Lt. Brian Rice, we can’t help but wonder if the two officers who accepted minor punishments would also have been cleared had they chosen to have their cases heard before a trial board.
In that context, many might call the $6.4 million settlement the city agreed to pay Gray’s family unjust. If not even minor charges against the officers could withstand scrutiny in an administrative hearing, much less in court, why, some ask, did the city need to pay a dime?
It’s important to remember that the litigation the Gray family was preparing to file against the city would have been of an entirely different character than the criminal and administrative proceedings we just saw against the officers. The defense that the Freddie Gray six were able to employ so effectively in all cases was to put the entire police department on trial — its procedures were so sloppy, its resources so inadequate and its culture so entrenched that the officers themselves could not be held accountable for the circumstances of Gray’s arrest, the failure to seat belt him or the decision to wait until it was too late to call a medic. In a civil suit against the city, those would have been powerful arguments for the plaintiffs. Baltimore could have been hit with a judgment far in excess of $6.4 million in federal court if the plaintiffs could prove that Gray’s death was the product of a pattern of practices that routinely violate the civil rights of Baltimoreans like him, and the Department of Justice’s investigation into the police department makes that case in spades.
Still, the idea of “justice” for Freddie Gray needs to encompass much more than that. First, justice would mean making sure that a death like his cannot happen again. Second, it would mean tackling head-on the structural inequality that defined nearly every aspect of his life up until the day he was arrested for the last time.
We’ve made some progress on the first point. Baltimore has deployed new police vans and retrofitted others to improve passenger safety and added interior and exterior cameras to monitor officers and detainees before and during transport. Patrol officers now wear body cameras, which, while not perfect, provide additional information about interactions between police and residents. The department has upgraded its software so that it can now determine whether officers have read emails about new policies. (A major issue in the trials and administrative hearings for the six officers was whether they knew about a new policy requiring that detainees be seat-belted in the back of vans.) A new use of force policy requires officers to call for a medic if a detainee asks for one, as Gray did. If Gray were arrested today, there is reason to expect that he would be seat belted and would thus be protected from whatever might occur during his trip to the district station. If that didn’t happen, cameras would demonstrate who failed in his or her duty and why.
Other reforms that could prevent a future tragedy like Gray’s remain incomplete. The officers who first encountered Gray were in that particular section of West Baltimore that morning as part of a “daily narcotics initiative” aimed at producing “daily measurables” — that is, stops, searches, arrests and other quantifiable measurements of police activity — that arose out of a request from Ms. Mosby’s office. Whether that’s what the state’s attorney meant when requesting “enhanced enforcement,” that is how the Baltimore Police Department has operated since at least the beginning of the O’Malley administration in City Hall. As the DOJ report details, the department never fully evolved beyond the corner-clearing mentality of the early 2000s, a time when the number of arrests in the city spiked to more than 100,000 a year. If not for that, would Gray have run when he made eye contact with an officer? Would the police have chased him, brought him to the ground, restrained him, hand-cuffed him, searched him and arrested him? Would a crowd of people have gathered around the officers complaining of their treatment of Gray? Would the officers have dumped him face-down in the back of the van? Would police have believed him when Gray said he needed medical attention?
How effectively Baltimore implements the requirements of its consent decree with the DOJ will be a crucial measure of justice for Freddie Gray. We do not have high hopes that the Trump administration will diligently ensure its enforcement, but we have reason for optimism that the judge overseeing the matter, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, and the monitoring team led by Baltimore attorney Kenneth Thompson will do so. We understand some of the misgivings about the fact that Judge Bredar cobbled together a monitoring team from multiple applicants, and that current and former police officers are well represented on it. But Mr. Thompson has deep roots in Baltimore and connections to the civil rights movement, and other elements of the team, such as the Baltimore Community Mediation Center, offer the promise of extensive grassroots engagement. The consent decree includes new restrictions on how Baltimore police approach and interact with possible criminal suspects, so that alone might have prevented Freddie Gray’s death if it had been in place at the time. More broadly, though, the goal of the consent decree is to heal the rift between police and many residents of neighborhoods like Gray’s Sandtown, a rift that underlies everything about Gray’s encounter with the police that day. Gray wasn’t doing anything wrong that morning — although he had a criminal record, mostly related to low-level drug sales, the only offense he may have committed was to carry clipped inside his pants a knife that might have been illegal under city code but not state law, something not apparent to the officers until after he had been taken to the ground. Why, then, did he run? We can only presume that he had been conditioned to expect that the police would at least hassle him, if not much worse. It was a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy.
Of course, it wasn’t just the relationship between the police and young, black men in places like West Baltimore that set the course of Gray’s life and death. It was also the legacy of decades of racial segregation and the entrenched poverty that followed. Gray suffered from lead poisoning as a result of the shoddy housing conditions his family, like many of the city’s poor, was forced to endure. He was failed by the city’s schools and the juvenile justice system. He had no realistic economic opportunities in his community and no way of getting to those in other parts of the region. Even if he found transportation, he had little chance of getting a good job because of his criminal record. Because of his death and the unrest that followed, we are now at least talking about those problems that we previously ignored or wrote off as insurmountable. The true measure of justice for Freddie Gray will be whether we do more than talk.