Some people protest police brutality in ways that only remind us of why we need police.
That’s how I feel about the Baltimore rioters who some news reports described as “protestors.”
The label falsely flatters the thugs and hooligans who set fires and attacked police, merchants and journalists after the otherwise respectful funeral on Monday for Freddie Gray, 25, who died under mysterious circumstances in police custody.
“Don’t tear up the whole city just for him,” said Gray’s mother, Gloria Darden, about the descent of peaceful protests into violent chaos. “That’s wrong.”
No one denies that plenty of questions surround the young man’s death. It was not even clear why Gray was arrested on April 12. He made eye contact with a police officer, according to the city, and took off running —with police in pursuit.
Gray had minor drug offenses and other scrapes with the law before, according to reports, but he was not wanted at the time of this arrest. He also had a switchblade in his pocket but, as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake later said, “We know that having a knife is not necessarily a crime.”
When he arrived at the police station about a half hour later, he was reportedly unable to talk or breathe, a police official told reporters. He died a week later of a spinal injury.
Was he a victim of what is widely known as a “rough ride,” an unlawful practice by which police vans are driven in a way that causes injury or pain to a handcuffed detainee who is not buckled in?
That’s how former Baltimore police officer Charles J. Key described such long, slow rides to the police station five years ago in lawsuit by relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride and died two weeks later, according to the Baltimore Sun. The family won a $7.4 million verdict.
Others who have won judgments after similarly wild van rides, the Sun reports, included a man who was left paralyzed from the neck down, and a 27-year-old woman who worked as an assistant librarian at the Johns Hopkins University.
“Undue Force,” a special Sun report last September found more than 100 people who have won court judgments or settlements totaling about $5.7 million since 2011 related to allegations of false arrests, false imprisonment and excessive force.
“One hidden cost,” said the Sun: “The perception that officers are violent can poison the relationship between residents and police.”
Indeed. As evidenced by other headlines since similar unrest boiled over in Ferguson, Mo., have shown, Baltimore is hardly alone in its racial tensions related to police conduct.
Gray’s funeral gave ironic significance to a ceremony 40 miles to the southeast. Loretta Lynch was being sworn in as the nation’s first black and female attorney general. Her first big test as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer may well be brewing in Baltimore.
Hours after she was sworn in, the new attorney general decried the violence in Baltimore and said the Justice Department “stands ready to provide any assistance that might be helpful.”
That’s appropriate. Her predecessor Eric Holder took a lot of heat from conservatives who want the federal government to stay out of local cases of alleged police abuse. But when local officials violate fundamental rights with impunity, nobody wins.
Besides, as we saw in Ferguson, a Justice Department probe will not necessarily result in conclusions that support the suspicions of protesters. Instead of indicting white police officer Darren Wilson in the death of black teen Michael Brown, former Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department found systemic discrimination and abuses by local police, government and courts, which were not unique to Ferguson.
Similarly systemic discrimination may well be at work in Baltimore, despite the better intentions of its black mayor, black police commissioner and heavily black police force. Systemic discrimination, unlike personal bias, shows itself in the results of one’s actions and practices, regardless of personal beliefs.
But none of that excuses the thugs and vandals who use peaceful protests as an excuse for violence. As President Barack Obama declared, those who are responsible for the Baltimore violence “need to be treated as criminals.”
After all, that’s what they are. That’s why we need police — to help solve problems, not create more of them.
E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.