For the city of Baltimore, it’s been three long years since Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody was declared a homicide by Baltimore’s state attorney, Marilyn Mosby. After an internal investigation that included reviewing of police tape, the autopsy report, and interviewing multiple witness, her office ultimately brought charges against six Baltimore Police officers. The most severe was a “depraved heart” murder charge against the driver of the police van alleged to have given Mr. Gray the “rough ride” that may have fatally severed his spine.
These charges were proceeded and, in part, prompted by days of unrest following Mr. Gray’s death which was quickly deemed a riot by the media. The growing anger was further fueled by the release of a tape of Mr. Gray’s initial arrest by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). It shows him screaming and limp-legged as he’s being forcibly detained and taken into police custody. The resulting destruction was reported and amplified by a flood of national media. The exploitative feeling that local residents felt in the media frenzy is well-captured by a viral video that shows a local resident verbally dressing down Geraldo Rivera and decrying Fox News’ focus on salacious stories of rioting, burning and looting. Despite continued coverage, some outlets managed to highlight leadership pushing for peaceful protest at the grassroots level with even Bloods and Crips joining the city council and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in calling for a stop to the violence and destruction. The former group was particular galvanized by a seemingly false story circulated about the gangs involvement in “targeting” officers. At the tail end of all this sadness, many in the city, like those screaming with joy at Ms. Mosby’s announcement of charges, felt hopeful that those responsible might face justice.
After three of the officers were acquitted in bench trials, however, the state attorney’s office ultimately dropped the charges on the remaining three officers. Five of the six officers subsequently brought suit against the state’s attorney’s office, but these claims were ultimately found by the Fourth Circuit to be barred as Ms. Mosby had immunity as a prosecutor, and the officers’ cert petition to the Supreme Court was ultimately denied as well. In reflecting this year on her decision to bring the charges, the state’s attorney remains steadfast that she has no regrets because “while I was not sure of what the future held, I was sure that I was doing the right thing.” In fact, she credits her decision for bringing a national spotlight on police brutality in Baltimore and believes the charges has spurred the subsequent efforts of reform.
Of course, her decision attracted critics. In particular, a University of George Washington Law Professor brought ethical complaints against the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office over their prosecution of the officers. The complaint went so far as to label Mosby a “runaway prosecutor” that was bowing to pressure in an attempt to “quell the thirst of a rioting mob.” However, this complaint was also met with public commentary from a Harvard Law Professor that such complaints were “wholly unfounded.” Others joined in support of the embattled state’s attorney and highlighted her renewed accusations, now that a judicial gag order was lifted, that police had sabotaged the investigation from the beginning. Moreover, the outcome of these cases had little bearing on the broader Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the Baltimore Police which had begun with the death of Freddie Gray. If anything, it only strengthened the calls for systemic reform that had prompted their review.
Indeed, all of these events seemed to culminate when, in August of 2016, the U.S. DOJ, Civil Rights Division, completed a one hundred and sixty-four page report that was the product of months of investigation into the Baltimore Police Department. It found that the police systemically engaged in unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests lacking reasonable suspicion or probable cause that were disproportionality aimed at African Americans and at times were made in retaliation of speech protected by the First Amendment. These encounters were often characterized by excessive force, at times aimed at the mentally-ill or youth, and produced a large numbers of arrests for discretionary misdemeanor offenses like failure to obey an officer’s order and disorderly conduct. The report notes this category of arrests, along with arrests for drug possession, were particularly stark in their application along racial lines. Moreover, the abuse of such discretion in the former category was apparent with one in six of such arrests being dismissed upon initial review. In all, the report spells out in striking detail the end result of “get tough-on crime tactics” like clearing street corners, regardless of the presence of criminal activity, paired with an obsession with arrest records as a metric for effective police work.
In the wake of these findings, Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, as chairman of the Public Safety Committee called for more transparency and city council involvement as the city negotiated the terms of police reform that would be forced upon it by the Justice Department behind closed doors. Ultimately the major agreed to show Councilman Scott and Council President Jack Young a draft for review. What resulted just a few weeks later was a 227-page agreement that required reforms like officer supervision and training on both de-escalation tactics as well as properly interacting with youth, the mentally ill, and protestors. The following October, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar appointed an attorney from the local Baltimore firm Venable, Kenneth Thompson, to act as the independent monitor of the sweeping changes proposed by the decree. By January of 2018, his team had laid out a “first year” plan that included review and revision of police policies on the use of force, body cameras and the handling of officer misconduct cases. More recently the monitoring committee has set up community liaisons to help communicate with the cities’ communities.
Sadly, this summer Judge Bredar questioned the department’s ability to meet the reforms required of them. In particular, he warned that continued turnover within the department’s leadership and lack of resources would stall progress on reforms. To make matters worse, a third of a recent class of Baltimore police cadets was found to lack a basic understanding of Constitutional policing as reported by one of their own legal instructors but were passed anyway after their instructors were removed. Concerns of turnover have only grown after the city had to name a fourth police commissioner this year after Kevin Davis was fired in January following a spike in violence, his replacement Darryl De Sousa was forced to resign after being charged with multiple counts of failing to file federal taxes, and Gary Tuggle was named interim commissioner only to withdraw his name from long-term consideration.
The broader efforts to heal the divide between police and the community came against the backdrop of the high-profile federal prosecution and sentencing of a corrupt elite unit of eight police officers known as the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF). It was found that this group had been acting with immunity for years in setting up individuals for baseless searches, robbing people, overbilling overtime, selling drugs and even falsifying evidence by, among other schemes, recreating search footage to conceal their theft of money and carrying BB guns made to look like real guns to plant them on anyone they might accidently harm. Many of the officers involved had long been accused, within the criminal justice system and in the large community, of being dirty.
The ramifications of the GTTF case was another profound blow to the larger community’s trust of law enforcement (although to some this was merely an “I told you so” moment) but there was an immediate and practical impact as well. Well before the summer sentencing of the GTTF ring leaders of the unit, Ms. Mosby’s offence had already warned that “thousands” of local cases were tainted by the testimony of the officers of The Gun Trace Task Force. Unraveling those cases and determining which ones prosecutors consider still “viable” despite the presence of GTTF testimony has proven a monumental task and led some to criticize a recent slowdown in the processing of defense attorneys’ motions to undue these convictions.
All of this has left the future that Ms. Mosby spoke of still very much uncertain though also hesitantly hopeful. Director Marilyn Ness recently spoke at a screening of her documentary Charm City and said her aim in making the film centered partially around a hope to capture voices of grassroots change, especially with so much turnover at the top. In particular, the documentary stunningly and starkly captures a multi-voiced story of, among others: a community member grappling with her challenges in becoming a Baltimore Police officer, a local community leader “Mr. C” who counsels at risk youth, and the frontline efforts of Councilman Brandon Scott as he fights for reform at the city council level. Despite its extremely dark moments, the film seems to capture a ray of hope in the fight to repair a city profoundly scarred by both violence and tense relations between police and community. It makes a conscious effort to avoid sensationalism or to focus of the Freddie Gray case itself and instead acts as a megaphone for local voices that despite many setbacks, continue to call for justice.
That said, there are structural reforms coming from the top that give reason to hope as well. In particular, the members of the City Council have fought hard to have direct oversight over the BPD as opposed to the state control that has existed for over 150 years. A Civil Review Board (CRB) has also been created to provide oversight and management over complaints of police misconduct. However, members of this board have complained about the lack of actual authority granted to this entity to bring its findings to action. This past summer such complaints intensified as City Solicitor Andre Davis attempted to force the board to sign a confidentiality agreement in regards to their findings. Tensions have come to a head this month with the board suing the police department for their alleged failure to respond to 11 subpoenas and 60 case file requests involving misconduct by officers.
The offices of city councilman and other local leaders have also increased outreach and programs to help repair the divide between law enforcement and the community. As the Charm City documentary helped highlight, Councilman Scott and others have fought to keep the city’s SafeStreets program funded, a program which trains community mediators on how to get involved in and de-escalate potentially violent situations. The Councilman, Major Pugh and former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis also rolled out a program in 2017 that allows Baltimore police officers to undergo training that includes both group and one-on-one sessions with Baltimore youth so that both groups can begin to better understand one another and break down barriers.
For its part, Mosby’s office has begun posting summaries of investigations into any “police-involved use of force” if the office declines to bring charges. Her staff also maintains an active roster of “community liaisons” who connect victims to resources, take victim and community impact statements, and educate various communities on the criminal justice system. Finally, the office sponsors various community outreach projects like Project17, a 12-month program that pairs chronically late or absent 11th and 12th graders with local businesses owners who share their aspirations to reduce school truancy, and Great Expectations, which introduces 4th and 5th graders to careers in criminal justice. More directly on point, the AIM to B’More project serves as a diversionary program that may help divert first-time, non-violent drug offenders from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. With all this we are left to simply hope that the chants of “No justice, No peace,” ringing out for days in the aftermath of Freddie Gray death, were not made in vain.