Baltimore: Cops and Robbers

Blacks, Whites, Boys in Blue, and the Unsolved Mystery of Freddie Gray


I’ve lived, my entire life, in one of the most violent cities of America–Chicago (known by some as “Chi-raq” because of the high number of shootings). I’ve experienced racial profiling: I’ve been harassed by police officers who insisted that my car was stolen–that my white friend and I were looking for drugs whenever we visited my relatives who lived in blighted parts of the city. And while I have many friends who are police officers, these events shape the way I view police–with gratitude and respect for the difficult job they do, simultaneously understanding what mayhem arises when the power of life and death rests in the hands of fallen man.

When I drive past police cars, I sit a little straighter, keep my hands at 10 and 2 and watch the cruiser in my rear view mirror until it’s out of my sight. I surely share a fear that many black men do: that having an encounter with a police officer on a power trip is a likely enough possibility–one with deadly consequences. Unlike being faced with a similar encounter with any other person employed in virtually any other line of work, I can’t win. I can’t defend myself. I can’t protect my dignity without fear of facing grave consequences. Even with the proliferation of cell phone videos and social media, my side of the story may never be heard. I can be brutalized unjustly while my family and friends sustain the unhealable scars. My only recourse is to wait until the negative interaction ends, and then complain to the cop’s supervisor (colleagues) in mostly futile hopes that some future citizen will be spared whatever ordeal I have experienced.

“Behavior that might land some defendants in jail, such as beating or even shooting another person, are not just permitted for police officers but are assumed to be part of their work,” writes Michael Wines in the New York Times.

That’s no way to live in America, and my sense is that police officers, by and large, do not want citizens to feel that way about them.

Slowly–hesitatingly–police departments across the country are starting to do the right thing in wearing body cameras. This partial solution, still in its nascent stages, may change things for the better, but is only a small step in the right direction. Had the Baltimore police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s murder been wearing body cameras, the devices likely would not shed much  more light on the mysterious events leading to Gray’s death. Still, though, body cameras would have served Officer Darren Wilson quite well, and more quickly dispelled the myth that Michael Brown raised his hands in surrender when Officer Wilson shot him.

Another legislative change that can improve the relationship between police and citizens would allow citizens to record arrests from their cell phones and other devices given that they are not interfering with police activity. Youtube and Liveleak show scores of videos in which police officers discourage filming, sometimes threatening force against the recorders, or arguing erroneously that the filming violates the law in states and localities in which the filming is actually lawful. Without these videos, like that capturing Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back, the public loses some context that undergirds black fear of police officers. Furthermore, these recordings, coupled with those produced by department body cameras, may serve to exonerate police actions.

The most important change necessary to alleviate tension between police and certain communities may elude legislators and policy makers. This change in the “code of silence,”  which finds police officers refusing to report bad behaviors committed by fellow officers, would reinforce the desired impression that police forces support the most important aspect of American law–its universal application. The “code of silence” among police officers frustrates the efforts of our legal system to punish wrongdoers similarly to the way “no snitching” hampers justice for victims in troubled communities. The “code of silence” would have protected Chicago Police Officer, Anthony Abbate, a 12-year police veteran who savagely beat a petite female bartender, Karina Obrycka, in 2007–if not for the bar’s security camera that captured the attack. Obrycka reported receiving death threats from Chicago police officers, urging her (unsuccessfully) to drop her charges. This culture of corruption and intimidation sows fear in the minds of citizens, relegating our police forces to tax-supported street gangs. Failure to dispatch with that reputation; and reluctance, by police forces, to adopt common sense solutions aimed at increasing transparency and accountability; threaten the legitimacy of the entire justice system. In many communities, especially communities of color, skepticism about the justice system’s fairness abounds.

Deservedly or not, police departments throughout the country face increased scrutiny while high-profile cases of unarmed black men shot by police officers mount up. Rather than allowing these challenges to further tarnish the front line of our legal system, police departments should proactively address public concerns about their transparency and tactics, show a sign of good faith with the communities they serve and distance themselves from the few incidents of a few departments that may cast a pall over all law enforcement.

Enter Baltimore, Freddie Gray, and the ensuing riots.


Some Baltimore residents argue that Freddie Gray’s arrest (perhaps an unlawful one) and death at the hands of six Baltimore police officers represented the tipping point in an increasingly tense situation between citizens and the police. In 2010, a jury acquitted a Baltimore police officer for shooting an unarmed fleeing man in the back. In 2011, a judge in Baltimore acquitted three officers charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment after driving two teenagers miles from their homes and leaving them in a different county without socks and shoes. Last fall, the Baltimore Sun released the results of an investigation that showed that over the last 4 years, Baltimore paid about $5.7 million to more than 100 people who won court settlements related to police brutality and civil rights abuses.  Today, allegations that police severed Gray’s spine, killing him, when they placed him face down in a transport van and drove recklessly–a tactic known as a “rough ride”–confound Baltimore’s police department as they deal with the resulting indictments, riots and violence.

While the rioters’ rage may be understandable, the riots themselves are not.Of course, not everyone agrees with my claim.  Salon’s Benji Hart argues that the looting and violence is a legitimate black political tactic, and that calling the rioters uncivilized is racist. I hold that arguing that blacks should uniquely be expected and encouraged to victimize others out of frustration, dehumanizes blacks–reducing us to opportunistic thugs, ticking time bombs, using perceived injustices as reason enough act antisocially. One might ask what it means to hold such a flippant, ugly, view of blacks, while not expecting whites to riot after the 2012 elections, for example.There is no logical link between Gray’s death and looting.

Jason Riley writes a brave and important piece arguing that protesters and apologists excused the violent riots in Ferguson because the racial makeup of Ferguson’s city government contained too few blacks. By contrast:

“Broad diversity is not a problem in Baltimore, where 63% of residents and 40% of police officers are black. The current police commissioner is also black, and he isn’t the first one. The mayor is black, as was her predecessor and as is a majority of the city council.”

Unsurprisingly, the riots’ biggest supporters are liberals. Michael Eric Dyson, writing in the New York Times, lays the groundwork for why Baltimore offers such a rich environment for rioting:

“The unemployment rate in the community where Mr. Gray lived is over 50 percent; the high school student absence rate hovers at 49.3 percent; and life expectancy tops out at 68.8 years…these statistics are a small glimpse of the radical inequality that blankets poor black Baltimore. it’s no wonder that black Baltimore erupted in social fury.”

These statistics interest me because so often, liberalism plays a sick joke on Americans who fall for it: liberal policies loot the wealthy (local businesses, big box stores, citizens, etc.) to give to the poor, but when they rule cities, as they have ruled Baltimore for years, the poor live in appalling privation. As a result, according to liberals, citizens of liberal cities resort to stealing from the wealthy (local businesses, big box stores, citizens, etc.) to do what liberal policies failed to do in the first place–equalize the rich and the poor. In other words, liberalism’s thieving policies fail to benefit its constituents, and actually beget more thieving.

Of course, I recognize that the Baltimore riots stem from more than just liberal ideas and policies. Distrust of police forces, and of the justice system it serves, stems from some real grievances that police departments must address. The answer is never to compound the injustice, either by rioting, looting, or convicting officers on flimsy charges. The answer is for police departments to get serious about transparency, kill the “culture of silence” that protects racist emails and violent cops like Abbate, and begin to take seriously the effect bad practices can have on eroding the rule of law. Citizens, of every race, must protest injustice without victimizing others. Excusing further victimization as somehow intrinsic to blackness or sound black political action fuels the suspicions that blacks are latent criminals deserving of disproportional scrutiny.