Friday, May 1, 2015
Where Do We Go From Here: Part II
As I write this, Marilyn J. Mosby, one bad-ass State's Attorney General, is busy outlining the exact timeline of what happened to Freddie Gray on his 45-minute trip to jail and lining up charges against the six officers responsible for his death.
All six officers will be prosecuted with charges ranging from false imprisonment to depraved-heart murder to 2nd degree murder, and warrants have been issued for the arrests of all officers.
On several levels, these charges are revolutionary and can result not only in justice for Freddie Gray and his family but also deeper and long-lasting changes in Baltimore.
There are two specific charges that I want to address, two charges that strike at the very heart of the problem in Baltimore.
First, false imprisonment. It was widely reported by the Baltimore Police Department that Freddie Gray had a knife on him when he was arrested, and he did. A pocket knife. The same kind of knife that many people carry around daily for all-purpose type uses. This knife is entirely legal. It was closed, clipped inside his pocket, and at no time did Freddie Gray reach for it.
Officers initially said the knife was an illegal switchblade and used that to justify Freddie Gary's arrest. That the knife was legal and the officers were charged with false imprisonment signals a potential end to the too-common practice of officers stopping, searching, detaining, and arresting black men in this city for no probably cause. Walking while black, standing while black, and, in Freddie Gray's case, running while black will no longer be a reason for arrest (and abuse or death).
The second charge that gets to center mass of what needs to change in this city is depraved-heart murder, a callous disregard for human life. This occurred when Freddie Gray was shackled and not seatbelted in. This occurred when Freddie Gray asked for medical help and was rewarded with ankle shackles. This occurred when Freddie Gray took his rough ride to Central Booking. This occurred when Freddie Gray asked again for medical help. And it occurred one final time when the second prisoner in the van was processed before a now-unresponsive Freddie Gray was attended to.
We shouldn't have to explain which lives we mean when we say that life matters, but the treatment of Freddie Gray clearly illustrates that Baltimore Police (and others in the city, if we are being honest), hold a depraved-heart, a callous disregard, for the life of black people in the city. This is the thing that needs to change first, or everything else is superficial.
As with the first part of this series, I acknowledge that hearts need to change before anything truly changes, but as hearts are changing, it is important to put into place policies and procedures that provide practical support on the ground. Today we talk about police.
Disclaimer: again, these are generalizations. There are actual people behind these numbers. It is important to look honestly, without politics or division, at the truth of what simply is in Baltimore City.
Let's understand the extremes on both sides first.
1. Police in Baltimore City (and all over the country) have a history of targeting black men. To that end, black men make up almost 40% of the prison population in the U.S., many of them incarcerated for minor crimes that a white man would receive probation for. Which is interesting because whites are far more likely than blacks to abuse drugs.
But I digress.
The point is that black men have an historical target on their back, pursued and prosecuted with a fervor that borders on fanatical.
2. Police in Baltimore City (and all over the country) have an extraordinarily difficult job. They have to make split-second decisions that are often life-or-death. They are charged with protecting a public that frequently has no respect for the job. Just as police are accused of treating black people like animals, they are referred to as "pigs" and dehumanized as nothing more than a badge and a gun.
That being said, there are ways to repair and heal relationships between these two groups. There is a way to reconcile the pain and anguish from the past with vital and important changes in policing procedures. I suggest these as a starting point, and I recognize that some of the groundwork has truly been laid over the course of the protests and as a result of the charges made against the officers.
Point #1: Police need to live in the communities they police. While you cannot force a person to reside where they work, and there is value to separating work from home, especially in such a stressful job, officers should at least be required to reside in Baltimore City. Currently, 75% of Baltimore City police officers live outside of Baltimore City. They are not vested in their community. They may never have lived in the city. They don't understand city-specific concerns.
Understanding what people are going through is crucial in deciding how to approach each situation.
Point #2: Communities need to step up and police themselves. From the mother who got so much attention for grabbing her son and smacking him during the riots to the parents who urged their son to turn himself in (which he did, and was rewarded with a $500,000 bail), communities need to take the lead on holding themselves and their children accountable. While I can't say I agree with hitting your kid (there is a serious cognitive dissonance to hitting your kid as a response to violence), that mom saw her kid and went and got him. Her blows were probably more about fear than anger, but the point is she went and took responsibility for her child. In another instance, a local football coach recognized some of his players and went to get them. The men in the Nation of Islam stood between local shops and rioters, pleading for calm. Many in the Baltimore community, black and white, have begun to organize and call for real change, change than cannot be legislated or mandated. It must come from the people, and it must reach across race and income level. White people cannot swoop into Sandtown-Winchester and expect any change to stick (see again #1: if you don't actually live there it is difficult if not impossible to truly understand).
And make no mistake: change can't just occur in Sandtown-Winchester. The night after the riots, I stood in line for coffee and listed to a young white girl talk about how refreshing her sleep was the night before. While the city burned, police and young people were injured, and stores were looted, she slept like a baby. This clueless response to what occurred is endemic in certain parts of the city, and some deep reflection is necessary. If you slept well in Baltimore on Monday, April 27, you may be part of the problem.
Point #3: Police need better training. It needs to go deeper than physical training and learning how to shoot a gun. They need to learn about poverty. They need to learn how to communicate. And they need to be rigorously screened for any indication that they may not be able to protect and serve without bias. Current police officers need to go through screening, regardless of experience or record, and anyone who is unable to remain unbiased in their job should be immediately reassigned or given early retirement if necessary.
Point #4: Police and communities need to work together in the city on things that do not involve policing. A community project would do wonders to develop relationships and humanize each side. The reason that both sides can treat the other with disregard is because they manage to keep their distance. Working together would help communities get to know their police, and vice versa.
Ideas for positive community projects include:
*Rebuilding houses for occupation or sale (with proceeds going directly back into the community, or residents of the community offered the opportunity to purchase the houses they work on);
*Designing and creating community gardens, a place where residents in food deserts or food swamps can grow their own vegetables and a place for community gatherings; and,
*Tutoring projects or afterschool programs in the community for kids so that children can meet and get to know the officers in their lives.
It is easy to hate and fear people you don't know, and the black community has ample and justified reason to hate and fear anyone in a uniform. Taking steps forward to build trust and relationships goes a long way to begin to heal the wounds that we have made as a society over the back two centuries.
Point #5: All pending cases of police brutality need to be accelerated. There is a backlog of police brutality cases against the Baltimore City police department, some of which have been open for over a year. These people deserve answers, one way or another, and the department and the State Attorney General's office need to devote all their energy to clearing the deck and moving forward. Again, this does not erase what has happened in the past, but as long as these cases are open and unresolved, the city will have a hard time moving forward.
Point #6: What do these two phrases have in common - "the blue wall" and "snitches get stitches?" They both maintain the status quo by continuing a practice of fear, intimidation, and lies. The blue wall protects officers regardless of what happens, and the practice of intimidating potential witnesses prevents neighborhoods from feeling community and protecting themselves. They also keep each side - the police and the community - from coming together to solve any problems that exist in the community. Let's not kid ourselves - there are serious violence and drug issues in Baltimore. Planting a vegetable garden and giving a police officer sensitivity training is making a silk purse from a sow's ear and only scratches the surface of the change that needs to occur. We cannot help neighborhoods progress without working together. We cannot let real criminals and dirty cops dictate what happens in our communities.
It should be noted that the changes I suggest are not necessarily revolutionary. They may even have been attempted half-heartedly before. The difference needs to be in the execution and the longevity, and the commitment to devoting time and resources. essentially, all parties need to decide that change is worth the effort and go from there.
Please add to the conversation below. Our city is a work in progress, and it takes everyone.
(Part I of this series can be found here)