Why was it legal to stop Freddie Gray?

Freddie Gray arrested by Baltimore Police

 

UPDATE: On June 23, Officer Ceasar Goodson also was acquitted of all criminal charges against him.

 

Baltimore Police Officer Edward Nero has been found not guilty of the charges against him, which focused on his role in putting Freddie Gray in the police van - hands and legs bound - and not securing him with seat belt.

 

Part of the reason prosecutors struggled to make their case was that, even though all Mr. Gray did was run, prosecutors arguing the case had to concede that it was legal for police to stop and arrest him.  This disturbing reality highlights how the courts have perpetuated and encouraged racially-biased policing without using the word "race":  In the 1999 decision in Illinois v. Wardlow, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police have reasonable suspicion to stop someone for suddenly fleeing in a "high crime" area.   

 

Set against the backdrop of historically segregated environments in Baltimore and across the country, the death of Freddie Gray - and the countless stops and searches of many others - is a predictable consequence of the Wardlow decision.  The ruling creates a dangerous dual system of justice in which people in poor, primary Black and Brown communities that are targeted with racially-biased overpolicing, have fewer rights.

 

The result is standards of police conduct that are different in some places than other places.  It is a powerful example of institutionalized and structural racism in which ostensibly race-neutral policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups. While the institutional policies may never mention any racial group, their effect advantages whites and disadvantages people from groups classified as people of color that are often targeted for differential policing and other discriminatory practices. 

 

As the State's Attorney's Office said in court, people in Baltimore are getting "jacked up" by police all the time. The Wardlow standard shows why economically struggling, mostly Black residents of Gilmore Homes in Sandtown-Winchester can't work with police while someone in affluent, mostly white Roland Park can:  A justified lack of trust.

 

Similarly, the waffling by Baltimore police commanders about whether officers should have put a seat belt on Freddie Gray shows disregard for human life in the Black communities they target.  It is common understanding in America that seatbelts are necessary; not wearing them is a known hazard, as virtually every driver and passenger knows.  We are trained from childhood to "Buckle up!" Yet, the General Assembly this past spring refused to pass a bill mandating that seatbelts be used during the transportation of detainees. Would elected leaders have decided differently if those being transported in police vans were mostly white and middle class?

 

We can't give police the power over life and death without accountability.  People of color being targeted by discriminatory policing standards must have a meaningful role in overseeing how they are treated by police.  The law must change and courts must begin unraveling the damage that has been done.  One obvious place to start realizing accountability it is to authorize civilians as voting members on trial boards reviewing police brutality cases. For the first time in 30 years, reforms to Maryland's Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights were won, including to allow local jurisdictions to support voting civilian members on trial boards. It's time for Baltimore to do so.