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Confronting Baltimore police

Two Baton Rouge police officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II were involved in Tuesday's fatal shooting of Alton Sterling. Both officers have been placed on administrative leave and the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting.

Are police getting away with murder?

It's a question being asked by far too many grieving families in Baltimore and across the country — by far too many African-American families, in particular, in response to the constantly rising number of unarmed black men and boys who have been killed by police.

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Last week, the Baltimore prosecutor's office announced that all charges would be dropped against the three remaining officers implicated in the death of Freddie Gray. Gray, a 25-year-old unarmed African-American man, died from injuries sustained after being arrested and transported in a van by Baltimore Police. Gray's case made national news and sparked riots in Baltimore. Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby was swift with her decision to charge six officers in Gray's death, giving African-Americans and other concerned citizens across the country hope that perhaps, finally, African-Americans would be on the receiving end of justice. Nonetheless, now that the smoke has cleared, we see that, once again, a black man has lost his life and no one will be held criminally responsible. Not one of the officers charged in Gray's death was found guilty. Not a single one.

Many in Baltimore fail to understand — or feign to understand — the peculiar relationship the Baltimore City Police Department historically has had with the black community. Other cases, like the death of 44-year-old Tyrone West, an unarmed black man who was beaten and sprayed with pepper spray by police, seem to suggest a pattern of aggressive tactics used to detain black male suspects. It's time for people to wake up. After all, there's a reason nearly $6 million was doled out from city coffers to families of alleged victims of police brutality between 2011 and September 2014 — nearly a year before Gray's death and another $6 million payout by the city to his family.

Visit any barbershop or hair salon in Baltimore on any given day, and chances are some of the war stories discussed by community folks just might amaze you. At the very least, I daresay they will sicken you. Whether they're young or old, blue collar or professional or live on the East side or the West side, African-Americans in Baltimore just cannot seem to escape ominous encounters with police. For many, the "2015 Baltimore Uprising" was anything but surprising. If there was any surprise associated with it, it was that it took so long for the city to erupt.

Soon, the national and local news coverage surrounding the case of Freddie Gray will end, the cameras and journalists will be off to cover the next tragedy, and the majority of Baltimore's citizens will continue struggling with unanswered questions:

What does justice look like when you're black?

What do we black parents say to our children when they question us about police and about our courts?

Freddie Gray was arrested a few short miles from where I grew up and where my parents, both retired professionals, still live. He was accosted by police just blocks from where I graduated from high school and where I've spent most of my adult life working to positively impact the lives of young, black males. I don't like to talk about it much, but the truth is I still have vivid memories of my negative encounters with the Western District Police in the early 1980s.

In the summer of 1984, I once had a gun placed to my head by plainclothes Baltimore police officers for nothing more than riding in a new car with several childhood friends. The car, which had dealer license plates, had been recently purchased by a family friend whose father was the director of the YMCA. This incident, like so many others I encountered with Baltimore Police, left an indelible mark on my psyche where police are concerned. If you are African-American, older than 40 and grew up in Baltimore, the probability is very high that you have had several negative encounters with police — from the planting of guns or drugs on you during routine traffic stops to much, much worse.

Even though there will be no convictions in the death of Freddie Gray, and even though people across the city — both black and white — are denigrating State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, I applaud the sister. I commend her for having the courage and conviction to confront a police department that has historically been out of control and that has acted, far too often, with willful disregard for the lives of black men. Black men just like Freddie Gray.

David Miller is an author and Open Society fellow; his email is dmiller3941@gmail.com.

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