One of the few consolations of last year's unrest in the wake of Freddie Gray's death was that at least Baltimore had the opportunity to set an example to the rest of the country when it was time to pick up the pieces. No matter what happened to the 25-year-old African American man before and after he was arrested and transported in a police van, it was clear that the city and its police department had failed on many levels — on that morning and for years before.
If the reforms pursued since that day — from body cameras on police officers to improved outreach between police and the city's most at-risk neighborhoods — didn't send a message to other cities that change was needed, surely the sobering report from the U.S. Department of Justice' Civil Rights Division must have. That the handful of police officers criminally charged in Gray's death were either found not guilty or had their charges subsequently dropped didn't negate the lesson to be learned from Baltimore: Communities that ignore a long history of racial disparity (both within and beyond the criminal justice system) set themselves up for future disaster.
And yet here we go again. The protests this week in Charlotte, N.C. over the police shooting death of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott came with a sickening sense of déjà vu. Sixteen police officers were injured Tuesday night as protesters clashed with authorities, setting fires and looting stores in some cases, in the wake of the death of an African-American man who police allege had a gun in his hand when they confronted him in an apartment building parking lot. That's an account disputed by others on social media, but a firearm was recovered by police.
The clash in Charlotte took place just four days after the death of Terrence Crutcher, 40, who was shot and killed by police in Tulsa, Okla. The victim, also African American, had been waiting for help by the side of the road after his SUV broke down. Police said the officer who fired had feared Mr. Crutcher was acting strangely and had failed to obey orders, yet video from the incident strongly suggests she and others had overreacted — the victim's hands were raised and he was walking toward his vehicle at the moment he was shot. Yet from this scant evidence he was labeled a "bad dude" by an officer speaking over the police radio from a circling police helicopter. That PCP was later recovered from his vehicle may prove irrelevant given his non-threatening behavior as documented on helicopter and dashboard videos.
Investigations into both incidents are ongoing, but the death of Terrence Crutcher appears the more egregious — he was an unarmed father of four and a college student. More might be known about the circumstances if officers had been wearing body cameras, but Tulsa has not yet issued them even though the city was awarded a $600,000 grant to do so last year.
It is ironic that in recent weeks the nation has been embroiled in an extended and often angry public debate over whether it's appropriate for a San Francisco 49ers quarterback to protest before NFL games by taking a knee when the national anthem is performed. What got lost was the point of Colin Kaepernick's protest — to draw attention to racial injustice. Agree or disagree with his methods, the latest shootings and accompanying uproar make clear that deadly encounters between police and African Americans remain a tragic and too-common experience in communities ill-equipped to either prevent them or deal with their aftermath.
That's not to suggest Baltimore has become some kind of shining example of racial harmony, social justice and police procedure in the 17 months since Freddie Gray's death. But at least the city has been fully engaged in the broad range of issues raised by the incident, from poverty and racism to the lack of economic opportunity and the need for improved civilian oversight of police. Was Tulsa already grappling with these same issues? Was Charlotte? If there are communities across the country that paid scant attention to what happened in Baltimore or Ferguson last year, let this week's events be your second wake-up call.