Policing on trial
The decision by Baltimore’s state attorney to charge six police officers in connection with the death of Freddie Gray has helped to defuse an incendiary atmosphere in the city. Rioting broke out last week after the funeral of Gray, a 25 year-old black man who died after an encounter with police. News of the criminal charges provoked celebrations in west Baltimore, the poor part of the city that was depicted in the crime series The Wire. However, the state attorney’s account of how the police treated Gray, who had committed no offence, is deeply disturbing.
According to that account, police officers had no probable cause for arresting Gray, whom they falsely accused of carrying an illegal switchblade. He was handcuffed and shackled at the feet and bundled into the back of a police van. He was otherwise unrestrained and, as the van moved, he suffered a severe neck injury from which he died a few days later.
Gray’s death and the riots that followed it have drawn comparisons with the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri last August. But the two cases are different in important ways. Ferguson is a predominantly black city with an overwhelmingly white police force and until recently an almost totally white municipal government. Baltimore has a black mayor, a black police chief and a police force almost half of which is African-American. The city, which has lost a third of its population during the past 50 years, has booming, affluent districts cheek by jowl with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the US. Decades of zero tolerance policing and the mass incarceration of young men of colour has blighted communities in Baltimore and beyond, destroyed millions of lives and set the police at odds with many of those they are supposed to protect. Aggressive policing and tough sentencing policies have been popular among politicians of both parties, while the plight of the urban poor has been absent from the agenda of most political campaigns. Tragedies like Gray’s death should wake up America’s leaders to the high cost of a failed criminal justice policy.