Angry protests turned to joyous rallies in Baltimore on Saturday as criminal charges lodged against six police officers for the death of a Baltimore man named Freddie Gray indicated that public outcry has begun to transform how authorities address allegations of police bias and misconduct.
After prosecutors and grand juries declined last year to indict officers who killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City, the decision by Baltimore state prosecutor Marilyn Mosby to move quickly to bring the officers to trial suggested a significant chink in the traditional deference prosecutors have had for the police version of events. It came a month after prosecutors in North Charleston, S.C, filed murder charges against a white officer who shot a black man in the back.
“I think all the events since last August has altered how people think about police accountability,” says Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska, at Omaha. “We’re seeing an emerging set of best practices on how to ensure that we get the facts of these cases.”
Ninety-eight police officers were injured and major fires broke as riots engulfed parts of Baltimore on Monday, after Mr. Gray’s funeral. The streets had been simmering with protest since Gray’s death on April 19, a week after his neck was broken and his larynx crushed while in Baltimore policy custody. But on Saturday, a sense of relief imbued planned protests turned into "victory" rallies.
Rejecting suggestions that Gray somehow hurt himself, Ms. Mosby declared that, “No one is above the law,” as she explained the underlying legal issues precipitating the charges – that the officers showed reckless disregard for a citizen in their custody, in part by contributing to his injuries and then failing to render medical assistance when, handcuffed, he lay prone and unresponsive in the back of a prisoner transport wagon.
After making eye contact and running from police, Mr. Gray was arrested after a short chase for possession of a knife. Over the past two weeks, a slow drip of leaked details, says University of Maryland law professor David Gray, have pointed toward Gray being targeted for a retributive "rough ride" by the driver of the wagon, during which the coroner found his head slammed so hard against the inside of the van that he received fatal injuries.
US Representative Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland summed up a sense of relief for many in Baltimore. “It feels good,” he told Reuters. “It will take time [to play out]. But so often there are no charges and the process never begins.”
Caesar R. Goodson Jr., a black officer who drove the police van inside which Gray struck his head against a bolt, was charged with second-degree murder, which could mean up to 30 years in prison. Mr. Goodson and three other officers also face involuntary manslaughter charges, while two other officers were arrested for assault.
All six officers – three black and three white, five men and one woman – posted bond and were released on their own recognizance.
One major change in approach, legal experts say, is how Mosby made the unusual move of conducting her own independent probe into Gray’s death instead of just accepting the police department’s report on the incident. The charges came just a day after the police handed over their version of events, as well as the coroner’s report.
Doing a separate investigation is “fairly unusual,” says Mr. Walker. “But in terms of the conduct of Baltimore officers, when you look at what we know about its recent history, it’s not that surprising.” In that city and others, he adds, “There’s a lot of well-known history of officers conspiring among themselves to create a cover story.”
To be sure, Mosby’s charges also backlit some of the racial dimensions to the debate over policing tactics. Prosecutors who failed to get indictments filed in Missouri and New York were white; Mosby is an elected African-American. While she comes from a family of cops, she ran for election on a platform of prosecuting police brutality.
“If they weren’t police officers, you would probably have expected arrests to occur immediately, so I think part of [the speed of the prosecution] is trying to show the community that this is being taken seriously,” says Todd Eberly, at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
At her Friday press conference, Mosby also drew attention to the fact that officers should never have taken Gray into custody on the pretense that he was carrying an illegal knife; the small spring-assisted folding knife he had in his pocket, she said, was in fact legal to have in Baltimore.
That point, too, touched on one of the main complaints that have been raised in the wake of controversial police killings and the deaths of black men in custody – that some officers have a tendency to engage trust-wrecking biases when dealing with suspects on the street.
For example, a Village Voice investigation last year in New York City, where knife laws are among the strictest in the nation, showed that “Black and Hispanic suspects make up 86 percent of [knife-related] arrests, and more revealingly, are nearly twice as likely to be arrested for carrying a knife than white counterparts who were also carrying knives.”
To be sure, some in the city had grave reservations about the speed at which Mosby filed charges, with one police attorney calling it an “egregious rush to judgment.”
Meanwhile, a massive march planned for Saturday to protest the death of a man in police custody is now being billed as a "victory rally" after Mosby’s announcement.
Helen Holton, a long-time city council member, told CTV that the charges are "a defining moment in the future of Baltimore."
“I hate [that Freddie Gray is not here], but to Freddie Gray's legacy, he has served as the tipping point for us to take a real inside look at what many people have chosen to ignore,” Ms. Holton told the Canadian broadcaster.