The violent legacy of Freddie Gray
Two years on, and Baltimore is still at the mercy of criminals
Healing is preferable to hurting but much harder to achieve. That’s the lesson in Baltimore two years after the death of Freddie Gray, whose death in police custody set off riots and mayhem. Faced with a choice between escalating crime and aggressive policing, the city has spurned the advice of the Trump administration and stuck with a strategy that promises more pain and heartbreak.
Last week U.S. District Judge James Bredar approved a consent agreement between the city and the Obama Justice Department, giving a federal monitor wide-ranging supervision of the Baltimore Police Department. The agreement puts conditions on how police deal with criminal suspects and demands additional training for the handling of juveniles, political protesters and the mentally ill. None of this sounds particularly onerous, but it requires cops to tiptoe on eggshells in dealing with those eager to make trouble.
Jeff Sessions, the new U.S. attorney general, says he has “grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.” Mr. Sessions opened a review of the consent decrees governing policing in the nation’s cities and asked Judge Bredar to delay implementation of the Baltimore agreement. The judge refused. “The case is no longer in a phase where any party is unilaterally entitled to reconsider the terms of the settlement,” he said. “The parties are bound to each other by their prior agreement.”
Mr. Sessions is right to be concerned. Since the Gray riots of April 2015, the situation in Baltimore has grown worse. Violent crime was up 22 percent in 2016 and arrests down 45 percent. Homicides climbed 63 percent in 2015 and have remained consistently far above the old normal. In contrast, the FBI’s preliminary report for 2016 shows violent crime up 5.3 percent nationwide.
A case of police brutality was the ready assumption when the 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered a fatal neck injury while being taken to a police station after he was arrested for possession of an illegal switchblade. Rioting, looting and burning in poverty-stricken precincts followed. It was one of several outbursts of urban violence that gave momentum to the “Black Lives Matter” movement that emerged after Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black president.
Baltimore’s elected leaders joined community activists in condemning the police “for terrorizing citizens.” Six Baltimore cops involved in the Gray arrest were themselves arrested and charged with various crimes. All were tried and exonerated. The Obama Justice Department opened an investigation of the department, looking for a pattern of excessive force against black residents. Men and women in blue became wary of a backlash if they appeared too eager to enforce the law.
In response to charges of over-aggressive policing in cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., President Obama’s attorneys general opened investigations of police practices. Fifteen jurisdictions nationwide are now supervised by federal monitors, making the police more accountable to Washington than to their local communities.
Thugs lurk in the hiding places of America’s inner cities, and the innocent need fair and aggressive law enforcement. The death of Freddie Gray was a tragedy, but more the result of happenstance than malice. Mounting crime in Baltimore demonstrates the consequences of passive policing. The people who live in “Charm City” deserve better.