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“Riots And Results”: The Next Time A Suspect Dies, People In The Community May Now Be More Likely To Take To The Streets

Yesterday, I wrote about how the explanation Baltimore police gave for the death of Freddie Gray was almost impossible to believe, and apparently, state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby felt the same way after her investigation, because she announced today that she is charging six officers with crimes ranging from negligence to second-degree murder (you can watch her statement here). In a post at the Plum Line this morning, I raised the question of whether you could argue that the violence that occurred in Baltimore on Monday led to this prosecution and therefore produced some of the accountability people in Baltimore want so desperately. Here’s a piece of that post:

The violence led to a huge increase in media attention, and even if much of that coverage was sensationalistic, there was also a lot of attention paid to the substantive issues involved. Those included the Baltimore police’s record in dealing with the public generally, and in particular the use of “rough rides” as a method of abusing suspects, which is a likely explanation for how Freddie Gray came to have his spine broken in the back of a police van.

All that national attention put every public official under pressure to not only bring calm but also to confront the issues that have the people of Baltimore so angry: The police commissioner, the mayor, the governor, and yes, the state’s attorney. While every official would like to believe that he or she would make all the same decisions regardless of whether there are people chanting in the streets and news cameras parked outside their office, they can’t possibly be immune.

I have to confess I’m not completely sure what the answer to the basic question is. I’m not at all comfortable endorsing violence as a political tactic, particularly since it not only claims innocent victims, it also tends to be less effective than nonviolent protest over the long run. But there’s no question that Monday’s rioting instantly made Baltimore and Freddie Gray a national issue.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that if the nonviolent protests had simply continued and grown, there would still have been a prosecution. Though I know very little about Mosby, she doesn’t seem like she’s being forced into this against her will. One important question is how the rest of the Baltimore officials who are also under a microscope respond. What kind of police reforms are they going to initiate, and how effective will they be? We probably won’t know the answers until long after the national media’s attention has shifted elsewhere.

There’s also the question of whether the events in Baltimore, including this prosecution, have any impact on what happens in police departments around the country, with regard to both police abuse and accountability for it. Suspects die in police custody all the time, after all, and prosecutions are pretty rare. Changing both of those things will take a long time, but the next time a suspect dies, the people in the community where it happened may now be more likely to take the streets, and the prosecutors are going to be asked why they aren’t issuing an indictment like the prosecutor in Baltimore did.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, May 1, 2015

May 2, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Baltimore Police Dept, Police Brutality | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Deflecting From The Full Truth”: Prisoner Was Wrong; Freddie Gray Didn’t Kill Himself

Before the second prisoner was even in the police van, Freddie Gray asked the police for medical assistance.

So you have to wonder why on earth a man who had just asked for help would then try to hurt himself—as the second prisoner supposedly concluded after he was picked up at the next stop a few minutes later.

The opinion of the second prisoner is reportedly contained in a search-warrant application prepared by a police investigator and now leaked to The Washington Post.

Somebody leaked the sealed document for a reason, just as the police were preparing to turn over the results of their investigation to the Baltimore state’s attorney. There is nothing to stop the Baltimore Police Department from also publicly disclosing its major findings, as it largely did after its initial investigation soon after Gray’s death. The only significant detail the BPD added on Thursday while announcing its probe was complete was that private security video indicated the van had made an additional, previously unreported stop.

But what the police have already disclosed is enough to suggest why the second prisoner might have believed Gray was trying to hurt himself—and why he was almost certainly mistaken

After the stop where he asked for medical assistance and medical assistance was denied to him, Gray seems to have resumed signaling his need for help by the only means available—by banging on the inside of the van.

Gray may even have imagined that the police were heeding him when the van stopped again a few minutes later.

Imagine his desperation when he realized that the van had stopped only to pick up another prisoner. Gray’s resumed banging must have been all the more insistent, all the more frantic.

As reported by The Washington Post, the second prisoner came to the conclusion that Gray was trying to hurt himself without ever actually seeing him, the two of them having been separated by a metal partition.

The second prisoner could only have based his opinion on the sounds of Gray banging against the inside of the van.

And the banging must have been pretty frantic indeed for it to seem that Gray was trying to hurt himself.

More likely, what sounded to the prisoner like an effort to self-inflict injury was a renewed plea for assistance.

Gray had learned at the time of his arrest that the police seemed deaf to his cries of pain.

All Gray could do once he was locked inside the van was bang on the interior. And that banging prompted the police to make three prior stops.

At the first, the police found Gray to be “irate” and “combative.” They then placed him in leg irons.

Gray also could have simply been frantic, and he had kept banging loud enough for the police to stop a second time five minutes later, and call for a cop to check on him in the back.

The purpose of that banging seems to have been made clear when Gray asked for medical assistance.

The police response was apparently limited to lifting him off the floor of the van where he had apparently fallen and returning him to the bench.

The van then rode on with Gray continuing to signal his distress, along that way making a third stop for reason the BPD has not disclosed or simply not yet determined. He most likely thought that his banging was prompting a fourth stop when the van again pulled over, and that medical assistance might be near.

But all that happened was another prisoner was loaded aboard, unseen and unseeing behind the metal partition. Gray was now apparently so desperate in his banging for help that he led the other prisoner to believe he was trying to injure himself.

Just six blocks later, the van arrived at the police station. The banging ceased, but not because Gray believed that he was getting help. It stopped because he was unconscious.

Medical assistance finally came in the person of paramedics who transported him to a shock trauma hospital, where he later died.

Now it is up to the authorities to tell us what they know before leakers manage to deflect us from the full truth.

At least we already know enough to reach a conclusion: If it sounded like Gray sought to injure himself in that van, it was after he had been making those very same sounds to signal he needed help.

The banging that second prisoner heard was the banging of a man who was just six blocks away from being beyond all help.

 

By: Michael Daly, The Daily Beast, April 30, 2015

May 1, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Baltimore Police Dept, Police Brutality | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Police Morale Can Wait”: How The Baltimore Riots Should Reshape Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s Agenda

Out of the many invisible and all-powerful forces that govern our universe, the cruelest must be Time. Whether you’re asking it to slow down for selfish reasons or to speed up for someone else, it doesn’t make a difference. Time is relentless and uncaring; it does not listen and it will not stop.

But even though it is ultimately an egalitarian ruler, wreaking havoc on the old, young, good and bad alike, Time seems to hold a special grudge against Loretta Lynch, the woman who, after an unprecedented delay, was finally sworn in on Monday as the 83rd attorney general in the history of the United States.

The first indication that Time has it in for Lynch was also the most obvious: the Senate’s 167-day-long dawdle. But while it was obviously wrong to make the first African-American woman ever nominated for the post wait so absurdly long to be confirmed (only two of Lynch’s 82 predecessors waited longer), I’m hesitant to throw the fault entirely on Time’s shoulders. The attack was launched by Republicans, after all; Time was merely their weapon.

But the second piece of evidence that Time may be holding a particular grudge against the attorney general was more palpable: the riots that convulsed Baltimore this weekend and paralyzed the city on Monday. Because although Lynch obviously had nothing to do with the disorder, the riots’ fires show with blinding clarity that Lynch’s first goal — which is “improving police morale,” according to the Times — is entirely premature. The wanton destruction of property cannot be legitimated; but simply criticizing anarchy and praising law enforcement won’t bring the mayhem to an end. And it won’t provide justice.

In many ways, the chaos in Baltimore is just the latest iteration of one of America’s saddest and longest-running stories. It is another example of what Martin Luther King once called “the language of the unheard.” King was speaking then of the riots that traumatized much of the country during the summer of 1966. But the social ills he described as kindling for the riot’s fire — poverty, police brutality and malign neglect — are, despite the nearly 49 years that followed, still powerful forces in America today.

For this particular moment, though, it’s Baltimore Police Department’s documented history of lawless violence that’s been identified as the riots’ inspiration. Protestors and rioters — who, it’s worth noting, are usually not the same — cite as their catalyst the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man and Baltimorean. On April 12, Gray was arrested by officers from the BPD. When police detained Gray and put him in a van for transportation, he was walking; by the time the trip was over, he had a broken neck. He died on April 19th.

No one yet knows for sure exactly what happened to Gray during that trip and in that van. There are reports that he was taken out at one point and beaten, but an autopsy showed no injuries except for those to his spinal cord and neck. The BPD has already admitted that its officers did not provide Gray with the necessary medical care. But the main question — Why was he able to run from the police in the morning, but struggling to breathe by nightfall? — has gone unanswered, though an increasing number suspect the widespread, grotesque practice of giving “a rough ride” is to blame.

Yet the fact that such a thing could happen, and only become a major story after the activism of peaceful protesters (and the destructive hijacking of violent rioters), is exactly the problem. The fact that the BPD’s reputation is such that many Baltimoreans heard Gray’s story with weary outrage rather than shock or indignation is exactly the problem. The fact that the BPD rank-and-file evidently feels so comfortable with extralegal brutality, and are so accustomed to wielding it, that demands for accountability has left them panicking — that, too, is exactly the problem.

I’m quite certain that, at least to some extent, Attorney General Lynch would agree. But that’s why it’s so unfortunate that news of her interest in “finding common ground between law enforcement and minority communities” came when it did. Because once the last stone is thrown, the fires are put out, and the state of emergency in Maryland is lifted, what Baltimore and the countless places in the U.S. like it will need is not another conversation. And finding “common ground” won’t be what America needs from its attorney general or its Department of Justice.

What will be needed instead is for the authorities in Baltimore, Maryland and D.C. to stop pandering to the police unions who demand carte blanche in the field and an endless line of officials singing about their valor. What will be needed instead are signs that the authorities take fears of the rise of the “warrior cop” and police militarization seriously, and that they will no longer see the deaths of people like Gray as “tragic.” Because they’re not cosmic acts of injustice; they’re crimes. To suspend (with pay) the officers who may be responsible is not enough — and Lynch needs to make clear that she understands that, and that her predecessor’s groundbreaking report on Ferguson, Missouri, was no aberration.

What will be needed, in short, is for the people most apt to use “the language of the unheard” to feel that someone who matters is finally listening. And that those in public office prove with actions that they believe it when they say an African-American life is worth no less than a cop’s. Now is not the time for Lynch to focus on making law enforcement happy. Now is the time for her to promote equal justice. Improving police morale can wait.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, April 28, 2015

April 29, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Baltimore Police Dept, Police Brutality | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Cop’s ‘Large Hunch’ About Criminal Wrongdoing Won’t Do”: The Supreme Court Just Checked Cops’ Power To Extend Traffic Stops

Cases involving the Fourth Amendment’s proscription on unreasonable searches and seizures are the sleepers of every Supreme Court term. Unless the justices are confronted with new technologies or particularly invasive government practices—like body-cavity or thermal-imaging searches—these decisions rarely grab headlines, leaving only prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law professors to ponder their significance.

But this can’t be the norm—not in the wake of Ferguson, with heightened awareness of abusive policing. Today more than ever, an understanding of what limits the Constitution places on police and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of those limits should be essential knowledge. Anything less, to borrow the words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, would simply reduce the Fourth Amendment “to a useless piece of paper.”

Because at the root of Rodriguez v. United States, decided Tuesday by the Supreme Court, lies one of the most common, and perhaps the only, interaction law-abiding citizens will ever have with law enforcement: traffic stops. Being pulled over is so mundane, I wondered in February whether Chief Justice John Roberts had ever been inconvenienced by the practice, perhaps as a result of driving with a broken taillight—the kind of infraction that triggered the killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina earlier this month.

When Rodriguez was argued in January, Roberts asked how exactly traffic stops go down in real life, saying lightheartedly, “Usually, people have told me, when you’re stopped, the officer says, ‘License and registration.’” That drew laughs from the courtroom—the implication being that Roberts wouldn’t admit to ever having broken the law—but it also suggested that perhaps he doesn’t quite grasp how humiliating these encounters can be. This prompted a rebuttal in open court from Sotomayor, who told the chief that she’d been stopped and that the experience of being kept longer than the time required to give her a ticket was “annoying as heck.”

Whether Roberts eventually grasped as much is unclear, but he did join the six-justice majority that agreed that police can’t extend the length of a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to inquire into the alleged traffic violation. In a triumph for citizens’ rights, the Supreme Court ruled that “a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.”

That’s a big deal, if only because a lot can happen whenever police extend a traffic stop, even for a few minutes longer than necessary. To be sure, police already have wide latitude to stop anyone who is observed violating traffic laws; if probable cause exists that you’re not obeying the rules of the road, police are justified in stopping you. But what if, during the course of the stop, police also suspect you’re up to no good? Can they just hold you while they call in the dogs, as happened in Rodriguez, or for backup to conduct a wider criminal investigation? The lower courts that originally considered Rodriguez thought so, reasoning that a stop lasting, say, seven to ten minutes longer than necessary “was not of constitutional significance”—that the annoyance merely amounted to a “de minimis intrusion” on a motorist’s freedom of movement.

The Supreme Court didn’t buy that argument. “Authority for the seizure… ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority. The court focused exclusively on the true “mission” of traffic stops—incidentals such as “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” All of these things are well and good when the initial stop is valid.

The problem arises when a well-meaning officer turns the traffic inquiry into a prolonged, crime-fighting one. Such unrelated “detours” away from the original traffic mission, the court observed, are unconstitutional without independent, reasonable suspicion that an actual crime has taken place. A cop’s “large hunch” about criminal wrongdoing won’t do.

That’s a commonsense approach—no one should be stopped for even a moment longer than absolutely necessary. But will the ruling deter police from trying other dilatory tactics? Rodriguez, for one, doesn’t explicitly forbid officers from, say, taking their sweet time while running your license plate or from engaging in “friendly” small talk aimed at eliciting consent. These end-runs are still largely acceptable, and only time will tell what other methods cops will employ to bide their time and divine suspicion where initially there was none.

Until then, the Supreme Court should be commended for making the right call and delivering a ruling that, though far from a blockbuster, should encourage anyone who cares about the continued vitality of the Fourth Amendment. In post-Ferguson America, there’s just no other section of the Constitution that matters more—the power of policing rises and falls with every pronouncement on it.

 

By: Cristian Farias, The New Republic, April 22, 2015

April 23, 2015 Posted by | 4th Amendment, Rodriguez v United States, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In Concert With U.S. History”: America’s ‘Ferguson’ Confusion; Why The Problem Has Been Completely Misunderstood

Before I had a chance to peruse the Department of Justice’s long-awaited report on the killing of Michael Brown by former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, I had three predictions. The first was that the DOJ would find the city of Ferguson’s finances to be a house of cards built upon a foundation of anti-tax absolutism and white supremacy. That’s what the Washington Post’s Radley Balko found last September, and while I may not share Balko’s libertarian politics, he’s a good journalist, and that report — which described the criminal justice system in St. Louis County as one “guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment” —  is an excellent piece of investigative work.

My second prediction about the DOJ report was that it would find the Ferguson Police Department to be rife with bigotry, which would manifest itself most conspicuously through emails filled with the kind of racist “jokes” that many Americans prefer to call “politically incorrect.” I guessed this not because I had any special insight into the office culture of the Ferguson PD, but because the embarrassing disclosure of racist jokes disseminated among employees by email has become a recurring media story throughout the Obama years. And if the problem is widespread enough to infect the self-styled Hollywood progressives at Sony, it’s hardly a stretch to figure it’s prevalent within a police force with as much historical baggage as Ferguson’s, too.

My third and final prediction, meanwhile, was that the media’s coverage of the DOJ report would devote much more attention to the second prediction (the racist emails) than the first (the systemic dysfunction); and that the response on the part of Ferguson’s civilian leadership would similarly concern itself more with “politically incorrect” jokes than with institutional corruption. I imagined that it would play out this way primarily because that’s how it always does. For a recent example, look no further than former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who saw a decade-spanning empire, which was always fundamentally built on an edifice of bigotry, crumble because he was caught saying what any right-minded person already assumed him to think.

Well, now that the DOJ report has finally been released, and now that I can look back with the benefit of hindsight, the verdict is in. And wouldn’t you know it, I went three-for-three. The report says the Ferguson PD is structurally driven to extort its African-American subjects to fill budget gaps. It also says the Ferguson PD’s email server was a like an online Comedy Cellar for the kind of racist jokes that middle schoolers tell one another when trying to be edgy. And the media has since devoted far more time and digital ink to cataloging jokes unworthy of even Carlos Mencia than it has explaining how a municipality could allow itself to so obviously rely on a system of race-based plunder.

What’s more, the early indications from authorities in Ferguson suggest that I was right to expect their response to focus primarily on the nasty jokes. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, last seen informing the folks at MSNBC that his city suffered from “no racial divide,” was quick to respond to the DOJ’s damning report — by firing or placing on administrative leave three officers involved with the racist emails. While he refused to answer any questions, Knowles also informed the media that the police department had recently hired three African-American women, was launching programs intended to build a stronger relationship with Ferguson’s African-American communities, and would institute mandatory diversity training for staff. Knowles also mentioned a few administrative tweaks intended to make the city’s criminal justice system less rapacious, but he also said “there is probably another side to all of [the DOJ report’s] stories.” Gotta hear both sides.

Before you start trying to make “Isquith” and “Nostradamus” rhyme, however, you should be aware of a few realities (besides that being impossible, I mean). For one thing, I’d strongly suspect my predictions were widely shared by those in the American media who focus on politics and race because, again, this story is fundamentally nothing new. For another, not everyone in the media chased the shiny red ball of racist emails, which aren’t even bad in themselves, anyway, but are simply too numerous. Lastly, while it’s very tempting to throw all of our culture’s shortcomings on these issues at the feet of the media — which, to be clear, is far from blameless — the press’s failures here are the result of larger, society-wide problems that are more deep-seated than our fondness for listicles or our penchant for calling others out.

Because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates implies in his response to the DOJ report, one of the major stumbling blocks separating the Fergusons of today from what a city in the United States is supposed to be is a level of historical ignorance and denial that makes confronting white supremacy head-on all but impossible. So long as the mainstream refuses to own up to the way race-based plunder is not contrary to but rather in concert with U.S. history, we will continue to understand racism as what happens when a bunch of mean cops sit around forwarding each other racist jokes. And until we’re willing to recognize that Ferguson is New York City is Los Angeles is Chicago and so on, fewer “politically incorrect” emails is all the change we’re going to get.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, March 7, 2015

March 9, 2015 Posted by | American History, Ferguson Missouri, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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