What Can We Learn From Baltimore?

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The deaths-by-police of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and most recently, the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore police have been disturbing to anyone paying attention. But these individual instances of police abuse reflect a deeper problem.

As a public defender in D.C. for six years, I got to know the families of my clients. In places like Baltimore and D.C., and other American cities, mothers of young black males routinely caution their children against calling on law enforcement for help under any circumstances, in response to decades of harassment and the fear that their own sons will become casualties in what, to them, is a civil war.

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I caught up with my former PDS colleague, Jason Downs, who now represents the family of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, for some perspective on the state of things there. “There is an utter lack of trust between members of minority communities in Baltimore and the Baltimore City Police Department. The Freddie Gray case is a tragic example of the reason black men in inner cities distrust police officers and opt to run rather than be brutalized by those sworn to protect them,” he told me. “The police officers’ indifference for Freddie Gray’s life is a microcosm of an issue presenting itself across our country. Until we truly embrace the idea that all lives, including black lives, matter, the distrust between the community and police officers will continue to present itself with severe consequences.”

Something has gone terribly wrong, as police violence in America has reached the level of the commonplace, and it appears to be a uniquely American pattern that has emerged against the backdrop of a gravely deteriorated relationship between our police and the populace. We’ve witnessed a transition from the soft touch of community policing to the iron fist of militarized riot cops and the increasingly prevalent escalation to deadly force in innocuous civilian encounters.

Beyond the role of race in this epidemic of police abuse, our courts have further tipped the scales by systematically eviscerating the Fourth Amendment, which was crafted to protect American citizens from tyranny. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Terry v. Ohio (1968) tore a gaping hole in the basic concept of American liberty, which has only widened amid the clamor to surrender more individual liberty to police power that has ensued in its wake. The Supreme Court’s approval of sobriety checkpoints in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz (1990) marked another significant move toward the consolidation of state power, in the court’s approval of the stop, detention and interrogation of all citizens with no suspicion of any crime. The slow erosion of individual liberty continues to this day in our courts.

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Local police forces have accelerated along a similar trajectory, amassing power against a citizenry increasingly viewed as a subject population. Practices such as NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program spread across the land as a mechanism of control in local communities, with minorities targeted at grossly disproportionate levels. According to the ACLU, more than 3.8 million such stops were conducted in New York alone between 2002 and 2011, and of those stops, 88 percent were executed on entirely innocent citizens.

The use of stop and arrest statistics by police agencies as performance measures has also become commonplace, thereby introducing pressure on officers to initiate more stops and arrests. This introduced a powerful bias against the truth in police reporting, putting honest cops at a substantial disadvantage as measured against their less scrupulous peers.

In the words of Illinois Circuit Judge Catherine Haberkorn, presiding over a routine drug case last year in which video evidence was introduced by the defense, “All officers lied on the stand today. […] So there’s strong evidence it was conspiracy to lie in this case, for everyone to come up with the same lie. […] Many, many, many, many times they all lied.” According to a Florida police officer interviewed by the D.C. Post in early 2015, the pressure placed on officers creates a climate in which “planting evidence and lying in your reports are just part of the game.” And much of the initial police contact in these cases is made possible by an ill-conceived drug war that has infected our culture for generations with policies that justify otherwise needless police contact, most frequently with minorities, and is largely responsible for the fact that there are currently more black males in American prisons than were enslaved in the 1850s.

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It’s no wonder that a lack of trust in law enforcement has emerged in the wake of this shift toward a militarized, incentive based approach to policing our communities, and that reality is no longer limited to our inner cities. A middle class white family in Maryland recently saw their children (10 and 6) taken into custody, and the parents charged with neglect, for simply permitting their children to walk home from a park. Here in Raleigh, we see sobriety checkpoints every Friday and Saturday night, where everyone is suspect, and disabled motorists seeking simple roadside assistance frequently turn into DWI suspects. To an arrest-incentivized police force, we all become a population of suspects.

Without seeking to equate the plight of middle class families in suburban communities with the institutionalized racism under which inner city families lead their daily lives, it is clear that the overreach of police power in America has broadened its reach to all levels of our society. If it is our desire to live in a free society, we should all be concerned about this shift in the dynamics of power in America, and begin taking. Ben Hiltzheimer

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