Some in Baltimore are cheering the actions of Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby in bringing charges against six city police officers in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a death that ignited racial tensions in the city and beyond. Several incidents involving black suspects and alleged violence against them by police have stirred a national dialogue and multiple accusations that those in minority communities are unfairly targeted by law enforcement.
There are signs that the suspicions have a basis, and some changes have come about, particularly in the requiring of body cameras for police officers.
Gray died in a hospital April 19, a week after three officers took him into custody. The claim was that he was carrying an illegal knife. Mosby, in her announcement of her action, said the knife he had was legal.
The prosecutor’s version of what happened was that Gray was handcuffed and put into the back of a police van but was not put into a seat belt, which violates police rules. She said that the van stopped four times and that, at one point, Gray was removed from the van and put back in “on his stomach, head first, onto the floor” and “suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained.”
Mosby said Gray was taken to the hospital only after he suffered cardiac arrest.
The charges are serious, with the van driver charged with second-degree murder and three other officers charged with involuntary manslaughter. Three of the officers are white, and three are black.
Mosby, who is the daughter and granddaughter of police officers, faced much pressure to act. Her announcement was firm but specific, and it seemed to reflect what she said was a thorough investigation.
Certainly she seemed more confident and in control than did Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who poorly handled the days after the incident, which included sometimes violent demonstrations and looting.
But how the trials of the officers will turn out is a matter of widely differing speculation. Police union officials think Mosby’s action is precipitous and in one statement called it “a rush to judgment.” The union stated “these officers did nothing wrong.” Attorneys also differ as to whether the charges will stand up in a trial. Still others believe the prosecutor did exactly the right thing at the right time.
What there is no doubt about is that the country needs to have a dialogue on the treatment of minorities by law enforcement. Incidents in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, North Charleston and Baltimore have become symbols of the ongoing tensions in minority communities that they are targeted by police who assume the worst. Police feel they’re now targeted themselves as having an institutional racial prejudice when they are in fact trying to enforce the law.
But what is certain in this case is that the arrest and treatment of Freddie Gray went tragically wrong, and his family and his community are owed the truth. That will come in the months ahead.
These charges may bring some sense of satisfaction and calm to a city where there has been little. But the larger conversation and productive action will take much longer. It is long since time, however, for it to begin.