Prosecutors on Wednesday dropped all charges against the three remaining Baltimore police officers awaiting trial over the death of Freddie Gray, concluding a landmark police brutality case without any convictions.
The trials had captured nationwide attention amid a two-year national debate over the police use of lethal force against black men. Mr. Gray’s death last April, among others, helped ignite that debate – and his was also the first to result in criminal charges.
For some, the decision to drop the remaining cases was justice – marking the end of what they considered unfair prosecutions of police. But others hoped that a conviction might demonstrate a new level of accountability for police officers, fostering greater trust in black communities for the officers who serve them.
But Wednesday’s decision illustrates that – despite the forward momentum in some areas of police reform and accountability – the courts are unlikely to lead the effort to restore that trust. The effort, experts say, will need to begin with police themselves.
“You want accountability? Police officers themselves have to start that,” says Charles Wilson, national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. “The typical officer, they’re not being given any true incentive to turn in an officer that they know or they see is doing something improper.”
In many ways, the lack of convictions in the Baltimore cases is not surprising.
Prosecutions of police officers are rare, and convictions are rarer still, due to the high burden of proof prosecutors face in showing that an officer’s use of force was unreasonable. A record 12 officers were prosecuted for fatal shootings last year, for example, but none were convicted.
Gray died from injuries sustained in a police transport van, and six officers were charged – with charges ranging from misconduct to second-degree murder. Of the four cases that went to trial, one ended in a mistrial and three with acquittals from Judge Barry Williams.
Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, argued Wednesday that there is an “inherent bias” whenever “police police themselves.” In the Baltimore cases, the prosecutors’ task was made harder by “consistent bias” at “every stage” of the department’s investigation, she said.
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 – the union that represents the six officers and paid for the defense – called Ms. Mosby’s comments “outrageous and uncalled for and completely untrue,” the Baltimore Sun reported.
Still, the case showed that convicting police officers remains difficult, even in the post-Ferguson era, says Kami Chavis-Simmons, a former United States attorney who now directs the criminal justice program at the Wake Forest University School of Law.
But the courts are not the only vehicle for change – or perhaps even the best one.
“There are a lot of different ways we can deter police misconduct but hold police officers accountable,” she adds. “The criminal justice system is only one of those ways.”
Public confidence in police is at it lowest point in 22 years, according to Gallup, and recent attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., suggest that the declining confidence is actually becoming a risk. Breaking “the blue wall of silence” and making sure fellow officers are held to account for wrongdoing might actually be in an officer’s best interests, says Mr. Wilson of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.
A reckless officer “goes out in the community, starts a problem with somebody, and leaves,” he says. “I come in on the next call and people are still [angry], so now I’m in danger. The idiot made my job harder, the idiot placed my job in jeopardy, the idiot placed my safety at risk.”
Cameron McLay, chief of the Pittsburgh Police Department, made a similar point at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday.
“Our communities are arguably safer than ever,” he said. “However, absent a sense of justice, less crime in your neighborhood is a hollow victory.”
Changes need to begin at the hiring process, says Professor Chavis-Simmons.
“Are they bringing in people who have integrity, and are independent,” she asks, “and who are going to be willing to blow the whistle when they see wrongdoing?”
That isn’t the case in many police departments at the moment, Wilson says.
“When you’re hired, you’re trained with the concept that your only friend is the officer next to you,” he says.
Instead, he adds, officers must realize that a “screw-up” is “just as much a danger to you as a police officer as they are to people in the community – and maybe more so.”