Bal­ti­more’s assem­bly-line jus­tice

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer, a trial lawyer, is a for­mer pros­e­cu­tor.

My par­ents taught my brother and me to re­spect the po­lice. We once lived on the same West Bal­ti­more street where ri­ots broke out af­ter the death of Fred­die Gray, whowas in­jured in po­lice cus­tody on April 12. Gray was un­con­scious when a po­lice van trans­port­ing him for book­ing ar­rived at the po­lice sta­tion. He died one week later from spinal cord in­juries. Gray’s death sparked protests in Bal­ti­more and other cities.

Af­ter get­ting a law de­gree, I re­turned to Bal­ti­more and be­came an as­sis­tant state’s at­tor­ney, a black fe­male pros­e­cu­tor among many white male pros­e­cu­tors. That’s when I be­gan work on the assem­bly line that is the United States’ crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, in the same of­fice that later charged six of­fi­cers in Gray’s death.

For nearly five years as a pros­e­cu­tor, I was in court­rooms al­most ev­ery day. The pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice is like a fac­tory. The wheels of jus­tice spin with lit­tle re­gard for how things work.

Po­lice of­fi­cers were my wit­nesses in a crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­gets black males. Most week­days, the large Bal­ti­more court­rooms over­flow with black men. It is as though white peo­ple don’t com­mit crimes. Back then, I didn’t an­a­lyze the con­se­quences of what po­lice do that fos­ters deep dis­trust in the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.

In Bal­ti­more’s mis­de­meanor crime unit, most charges are brought for petty theft, shoplift­ing, mi­nor as­saults, mi­nor drug of­fenses, illegal hand­gun pos­ses­sion, drunken or im­paired driv­ing, or dis­or­derly con­duct. The ma­jor­ity of all crim­i­nal cases are mis­de­meanors. While Bal­ti­more’s black pop­u­la­tion hovers around 64 per­cent, an Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union study found that 92 per­cent of the city’s mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion ar­rests in 2010 were of African Amer­i­cans. That 2013 study claims that blacks and whites use mar­i­juana at about the same rate, yet I rarely saw white de­fen­dants. The per­va­sive feel­ing in the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity is that the Bal­ti­more po­lice sin­gle out black men by fol­low­ing, stop­ping and ar­rest­ing them.

It was my job to re­view po­lice of­fi­cers’ sworn state­ments to ob­tain charges. These doc­u­ments are sup­posed to de­scribe facts lead­ing to each ar­rest. Of­ten they lacked unique­ness, read­ing in­stead as though they were taken ver­ba­tim from charges filed against oth­ers.

I was struck by how fre­quently sim­ple ar­rests had no prob­a­ble cause. Charges of loi­ter­ing, dis­or­derly con­duct or fail­ing to obey po­lice were of­ten stand-ins for “lit­tle else to go on.” It was dif­fi­cult to know whether of­fi­cers mis­un­der­stood and there­fore mis­ap­plied the law or knew the law and failed to cor­rectly ap­ply it. Did they pur­pose­fully mis­ap­ply the law to ar­rest more black men than any­one else? The re­sult was the same. Po­lice fre­quently ar­rested black peo­ple with­out prob­a­ble cause. Some cases were dis­missed, but in most cases, the ar­rest records re­mained.

I felt pow­er­less to change this sys­tem. As with many lawyers be­gin­ning a ca­reer, my goal was to ob­tain trial skills and ad­vance. Rock­ing the boat is not con­ducive to pro­mo­tion. But the ex­pe­ri­ence helped me make a quick de­ci­sion when my brother re­cently had a med­i­cal emer­gency while driv­ing in Bal­ti­more.

My brother, who is black, more than 6 feet tall and 260 pounds, was able to stop his ve­hi­cle and call me. But he was dis­ori­ented and con­fused, clearly not him­self. While on the phone, he saw a po­lice car and asked me whether he should flag the of­fi­cer and ask for help.

Con­cerned that the po­lice would ar­rest him rather than help, I said no.

If the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is go­ing to ad­dress racial in­equities, it must start at the lead­er­ship level. The lower assem­bly-line pros­e­cu­tors can­not make pol­icy changes. Top pros­e­cu­tors must take a se­ri­ous look at how we pros­e­cute crime, who gets pros­e­cuted and why.

If we keep do­ing the same thing, dis­trust in the po­lice and the sys­tem will con­tinue. And more Fred­die Grays will get ar­rested, go to jail or die at the hands of po­lice.

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