Allegations in the Freddie Gray case that Baltimore is a “cops’ playground” where police mete out street justice with impunity are driving vows from civil rights protesters to “shut down” Baltimore on a busy and sunny spring weekend, with the Red Sox in town to face the Orioles.
Six Baltimore police officers have been suspended with pay after their handling of Mr. Gray led to his death a week after his arrest. On April 12, Gray ran from police after making eye contact, and was then arrested for carrying what police allege is a small, illegal knife. Video shows Gray limp and screaming in pain as he’s loaded into a jail transport.
Whether the officers in question were acting lawlessly or out of malice is not clear, though the picture is getting “sharper and sharper,” according to police commissioner Anthony Batts. So far, police have not been able to explain Gray’s severe spinal injury, nor why they didn’t get an obviously injured man immediate medical care.
The failure of armed and deputized officers to help an injured citizen in their custody suggests an uncivilized lack of humanity that is flummoxing the US as incidents of police abuse, brutality and murder rack up, with young black men like Mr. Gray often the target.
More directly, the incident ties into a longer history in Baltimore of police misconduct, including a practice of taking subjects for “rough rides” without a seatbelt in the back of transport wagons. Such abuses highlight a central problem for US municipalities increasingly forced to reckon with a long history of police brutality.
“The barbaric handling of suspects is painting a picture to the nation that Baltimore is a cops' playground where citizens are harassed and manhandled, where cops can play out their vigilante behaviors,” writes Baltimore resident Patrick Lynch, in a letter published by the Baltimore Sun. “Old habits truly die hard. Stories have surfaced about how suspects who were transferred in [prisoner transport] vehicles were not secured as the drivers made the trip to the precinct a ride to remember. That is in itself archaic and pathetic.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Friday acknowledged the comparison, saying the Freddie Gray “rough ride” was “not a one-off.” The city faced a similar situation in 2005, when a man named Donde Johnson died from a spinal fracture after being given a ride in a transport wagon without a seatbelt. Police claimed to have addressed that issue, but now acknowledge that they failed to secure Gray in his seat as well during a 30 minute ride that included three separate stops.
"I will not deny we have had a very long and complicated history on issues such as these," Ms. Rawlings-Blake said. "But it's important to remember that we have an equally long history of peaceful and legal protest."
The unrest in Baltimore comes amid a string of incidents nationwide where police have been videotaped physically abusing prone or handcuffed subjects, not to mention a series of controversial police killings of unarmed black men. Last week, San Bernardino, Calif. paid out nearly $700,000 in a settlement after police severely beat a man who had led officers on a horseback chase. After the man ended the chase and lay down on the ground with his hands on his back, he was beaten and repeatedly kicked in the head by a group of officers. Despite his injuries, officers refused the man medical care for 45 minutes.
In Baltimore, officials have acknowledged that police were wrong to not give Gray immediate medical care. The sense among many protesters that police deliberately allowed Gray to suffer for forcing them into a chase touches on America’s unique brand of law enforcement authoritarianism, the supremacy of officer safety during interactions, and a sense among officers that they “can get away with it,” as former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper put it recently in the Huffington Post.
The roots of police brutality, according to the authors of the recent book “Race and Police Brutality: Roots of an Urban Dilemma,” run deep into human history, including the manner in which humans through time form loyalty and solidarity with social groups, in the process exaggerating boundaries with “outgroups.” In the case of the American inner city, both police and residents form negative, dehumanizing stereotypes of each other.
“Poverty, racism, and social isolation … tap into automatic cognitive processes and increase the potential for conflict, particularly police brutality, even when there has been no specific provocation,” Malcolm Holmes and Brad Smith argue in “Race and Police Brutality.” Seen that way, police brutality “constitutes a normal, albeit highly unfortunate, manifestation of human psychological functioning.”
The depth of those social divides was on display this week when the president of the local police union compared peaceful protesters to a “lynch mob,” failing to recognize that that’s a loaded word for African-Americans in a country where extrajudicial mob lynchings of black people ended only 50 years ago.
Foot chases, in particular, can create situations where officers may become blind to their professional training, including warnings against using excessive force, policing experts say.
“Foot pursuits are by their very nature emotionally charged and dangerous events,” writes Ron Martinelli in Police, the magazine. “More often than not, officers become emotionally captivated by the event and have an instinctive reaction, rather than a studied and planned response to resistance and chase without considering the inevitability of suspect capture.”
But to critics, police abuses cannot occur in a vacuum. Indeed, Baltimore policy for years pushed officers to make small-time arrests in order to curb the city’s high violent crime rate.
Now a potential Democratic presidential candidate, former Mayor Martin O’Malley led an increase in “zero-tolerance” policing in the early 2000s that lowered violent crime rates, but sowed suspicion and distrust in the city’s large minority neighborhoods as police racked up massive arrests for so-called “quality of life” crimes, including the carrying of small spring-assisted folding knives that are legal for most Americans to wear, but not for inner city residents in cities like Baltimore and New York.
Under the current mayor, Rawlings-Blake, the city’s murder rate is at its lowest since the 1970s. Yet the administration has not been able to shake allegations of police abuse, and protesters have called on Mr. Batts, the police commissioner, to resign, which he has refused to do.
"In emergencies, even the most jaded cops will still show remarkable bravery and selflessness, placing themselves in direct danger for the sake of strangers of whatever race," writes Michael Daly, in the Daily Beast. "Yet in the dispiriting routine of collars for petty crimes, some cops can turn callous and assume the worst even if they are not inclined toward brutality."
Meanwhile, the ability of city officials to detail exactly how Gray died and whether anyone will face any serious consequences will likely play into the breadth of unrest in a city clearly beleaguered by the historical conduct of its peace officers.
“Things will change on Saturday, and the struggle will be amplified,” Malik Shabazz, of Black Lawyers for Justice, told Fox News. “It cannot be business as usual with that man’s spine broken, with his back broken, with no justice on the scene.”