Tag: Policing

The Baltimore Mess

As you may have read, the final charges were dismissed in the Freddie Gray case a few weeks ago, after the first four trials ended in acquittal. What strikes me about the Freddie Gray case is the staggering incompetence of the prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby. In Freddie Gray, we had a man who had not committed a crime, was bound up and tossed in the back of the van and emerged with his neck fatally broken. You would think you could at least get something out of that. But through a series of blunders — concealing exculpatory evidence, overcharging (murder instead of negligent homicide or manslaughter) and other incompetent idiocies, Mosby got nothing. Well, she got her face on TV, which seems to be what mattered most to her.

Mosby is running around insisting that if she’d only had a jury trial, she would have won (ignoring that the first jury deadlocked). She’s wrong:

A prosecutor who evaluates cases based on evidence and appropriately applied laws is actually charged with seeking convictions over justice, not the other way around. Mosby admitted to the nation she was not looking for convictions. The only other explanation was that she was looking to appease the angry citizens of Baltimore.

That would seem noble, except it’s not. Prosecutors have a serious job that comes with serious power. And the way they wield that power is extremely important. Politics and criminal law don’t mix well. That’s been on full display as Mosby’s prosecutors keep spinning wilder legal theories and, not surprisingly, keep getting handed acquittals.

The larger pity of this is that the acquittal overshadows some very serious problems in the Baltimore PD. The Justice Department recently issued the results of its investigation in the BPD. Balko, who calls the DOJ report “the worst I’ve ever seen” goes through it point-by-point. BPD has been told to make large numbers of stops and arrests, regardless of whether someone is committing a crime or not. Unsurprisingly, these arrests are concentrated in a handful of poor black neighborhoods. People are frequently detained, questioned and searched without probable cause (95% of them turn out to have no contraband or outstanding warrants). People have been strip-searched in public without probable cause, arrested without probable cause, made to “justify” their presence in public areas. Of thousands of complaint of excessive force, only a tiny number were investigated and only one resulted in discipline. BPD officers are routinely instructed to use excessive force, including being told to point their guns at people in non-violent situations to exert control.

This passage in particular is just jaw-dropping.

During a ride-along with Justice Department officials, a BPD sergeant instructed a patrol officer to stop a group of young African-American males on a street corner, question them, and order them to disperse. When the patrol officer protested that he had no valid reason to stop the group, the sergeant replied “Then make something up.”

Just so we’re clear, the sergeant not only instructed a subordinate to violate the men’s constitutional rights by concocting a lie, he did so while knowingly in the presence of DOJ monitors. That’s some serious cultural and institutional rot. In another incident, the report describes how several officers detained a man whose only offense was to be in a “high-crime area” with his hands in his pockets. (The DOJ report notes that it happened to be a cold January morning.) After repeated questioning, the officers found a (perfectly legal) kitchen knife in his possession. They then illegally arrested him. When he resisted, they beat and Tased him to the point that he needed medical care. He was never charged with a crime. In his report, the supervising sergeant praised the officers for their “great restraint and professionalism.”

Notorious police-state bootlicker Heather MacDonald posted a response that basically ignored everything in the report. It amounts to, “well, most crimes are committed by black people.” That’s true, but it does not justify routinely detaining, searching, arresting and harassing black people. It does not make standing on a corner being black probable cause. It does not justify ignoring almost all complaints of police brutality and misconduct. This is not either-or. It is perfectly reasonable to note that black people commit an astonishingly high proportion of crimes and that the BPD is engaging in astonishing unconstitutional practices that are tinged with racial bias.

One of the things we have seen is that when riots erupt, there is often a history. That does not justify the riots, obviously, since the riots only do more damage to the community and discredit the cause. But the Rodney King riots erupted after years of complaints about Darryl Gates’ LAPD. The Ferguson riots erupted after years of the city sustaining its unsustainable budget by fining and ticketing the shit out of its black citizenry. This report shows that the Baltimore riots erupted in a city engaging in incredibly aggressive policing that makes its citizens feel under siege.

Balko:

I can’t imagine what it must be like to get stopped by the police 20 or more times every year — to be arrested and jailed for nothing at all, to be stripped nude and searched in public for a traffic offense, or to be told it’s basically illegal for me to merely exist in public. I can’t imagine trying to have a life under those conditions, to raise kids, to just function as a human being — much less rise above my surroundings. I suppose defenders of these tactics will say that black neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted because that’s where most of the crime takes place. I don’t doubt that may be true. But your constitutional rights aren’t determined by the behavior of people who look like you, or by the behavior of the people who live in your neighborhood. Neither should the dignity and humanity afforded to you by the people who are supposed to be protecting you.

This, of course, only makes the riots all the more tragic. Peaceful demonstrations would have done a better job of highlighting these problems without alienating everyone*. But the violence doesn’t change the reality that BPD has a serious problem in its policing.

(*Possibly. The might also, as we’ve seen in several cities, provoked a militarized response anyway.)

BLM Proposes

Last week, I agreed with Hillary Clinton that if Black Lives Matter wanted to make a difference, they needed to propose actual laws and policies, not just “raise awareness”. This week, they’ve come out with a list of proposals and … it’s actually pretty reasonable. They propose things like better police training, an end to asset forfeiture and broken windows policing, independent investigation of police shootings, body cameras. There are a few things I would disagree with but, overall, this is pretty mainstream and in line with what many conservatives have been talking about, especially asset forfeiture reform and demilitarization.

Radley Balko notes that while these proposals are reasonable, they are likely to portrayed as radical by police unions who are used to having the media and politicians mindlessly parrot their spokesmen. But:

There is at least some reason to be more optimistic this time around. The main reason is that the problems in policing are starting to affect people who have the status and power to do something about them. One reason we’re starting to see conservative opposition to police militarization, for example, is that police militarization is starting to affect conservatives. We’re seeing regulatory agencies with armed police forces, some even with tactical teams. We’re seeing SWAT-like tactics used to enforce zoning laws and low-level crimes. We’re seeing heavy-handed force used to collect cigarette taxes or to enforce regulatory law.

Similarly, while how and when police use lethal force has a disproportionate effect on communities of color, there has been no shortage of stories about unarmed white people killed by police. There are problems in policing that are directly related to race, such as profiling, bias and an irrational fear of black criminality. But there are also problems in policing that affect people of all races, such as the use of lethal force, unnecessary escalation and the prioritizing of officer safety over all else. (Even these problems disproportionately affect black and brown people.)

Do we dare say that … all lives matter? A government that can launch an armed SWAT raid against Okra plants is a danger to everyone, black white or Dolezal.

In my original post, I said that the best way to address the problems in law enforcement is for government to “make itself less powerful, less intrusive, more accountable and more respectful of our basic civil liberties.” Black Lives Matter’s proposals do exactly that. Ultimately, we will have to address the massive size and scope of government. The less the law is involved in our lives, the less chance there is for that involvement to go wrong. But shaping reform around BLM’s proposals would be a great first step toward addressing the problems and building a better relationship between police and their communities.