As all the trouble was unfolding in Baltimore, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi held his annual Justice Summit, and already the theme was on point – “Race and Reform.” Naturally, the speakers focused on San Francisco’s own scandals – the text messaging, DNA lab, and sheriff’s department – but also the overall issue of race and policing.
On the other side of the country from Baltimore, San Francisco DA George Gascon came forward with a solution that would have helped resolve the problems in Baltimore – if not prevent them in the first place. The DA not only called for body cameras on police officers, but also a requirement that all arrests be accompanied by video.
As he pointed out, sure, there may be times when technical problems occur, but those will be rare. And if you have a suspicious arrest with no video, a prosecutor is going to naturally view that arrest with a great deal of suspicion.
That would have come in handy because, while we have some video of the Baltimore police placing Freddie Gray into the police van on April 12, we do not have footage of before and after. And really, in this day and age, there is no excuse for any of that.
On Friday, the state’s attorney for the city of Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, filed charges against six officers. Some will say this was a political move to calm down the city – and perhaps it was. However, she has great incentive to get this one right, because if they cannot substantiate the charges – including second degree murder, her career will be in jeopardy – just ask Michael Nifong, from the Duke University lacrosse case.
The officers who were arrested included a lieutenant of 17 years, several near-rookies and a woman who was promoted to sergeant. Three were white and three were black. More on that at a future point.
The most serious charges were brought against Officer Caesar Goodson, who drove the van that carried Mr. Gray to the police station the day in question. Along with involuntary manslaughter, Officer Goodson was charged with “second-degree depraved heart murder,” which means indifference to human life.
The key thing – at least to me – was the point that Ms. Mosby made that this was in fact an illegal arrest. She said, the officers “illegally arrested Mr. Gray.” The officers who arrested him “failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray’s arrest, as no crime had been committed,” she said. Contrary to reports that he carried a switchblade, Ms. Mosby explained, “The knife was not a switchblade and is lawful under Maryland law.”
Ms. Mosby said that Mr. Gray suffered a spinal injury during, rather than before, being arrested. “Mr. Gray suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside the B.P.D. wagon,” she said.
There is speculation that Mr. Gray was intentionally given a “rough ride” – meaning the driver maneuvered the vehicle in a way to intentionally slam him against the metal sides of the vehicle. Ms. Mosby did not refer to that in the press conference.
She did say that, as his condition deteriorated, the officers repeatedly ignored his pleas for medical attention and ignored signs of distress. Most pointedly, at one point, the officers found him unresponsive and yet took no action.
“The findings of our comprehensive, thorough and independent investigation, coupled with the medical examiner’s determination that Mr. Gray’s death was a homicide, which we received today, has led us to believe that we have probable cause to file criminal charges,” she said.
All week long there has been speculation about what transpired – in part because we did not have video of what occurred. There was a leaked report earlier this week that Mr. Gray may have intentionally tossed himself about the back of the police vehicle – however, the coroner’s report which has not been made public, points away from that explanation.
The talk now is about the possibility of a “rough ride.”
As the New York Times reported on Thursday, “The slang terms mask a dark tradition of police misconduct in which suspects, seated or lying face down and in handcuffs in the back of a police wagon, are jolted and battered by an intentionally rough and bumpy ride that can do as much damage as a police baton without an officer having to administer a blow.”
This has led “some to wonder whether he was deliberately left unbuckled, reminiscent of a practice that while little known has left a brutal, costly legacy of severe injuries and multimillion-dollar settlements throughout the country.”
“It’s sort of a retaliatory gesture,” said Robert W. Klotz, a police-procedures expert and former deputy chief of police of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington. “It’s one of those nebulous type of things where the individual feels they’ve been subjected to it because they’ve been mouthy. The officers say they have no intent in doing anything. It winds up in a he said-she said situation.”
Perhaps. But then again, what we have may be bad enough even if there was no rough ride. What we know certainly warrants the charges. First, police illegally arrested Mr. Gray. At some point we will get toxicology reports on whether Mr. Gray was on drugs at the time he took off running from police. But as we know, an individual who takes off running when there is no warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion has committed no crime.
Second, we know that when he was arrested without having committed a crime, he was placed in custody without restraints to protect him. And third, we know that he was not given medical attention even when he was unresponsive.
If the prosecutor has the facts to prove that – then I think there is a pretty good case for indifference to human life. If the prosecutor cannot prove that, then she may well have seen the last of her career.
In the meantime, Mr. Gray’s case continues to fuel the debate over police practices and minor-police relations.
Some of the points made in San Francisco this week had a bearing on this matter, such as the notion that the restoration of trust in the community necessitates openness and transparency. The video footage proposal by Mr. Gascon hits exactly the right chord here.
“Transparency,” he said. “When we do things in the open everyone is protected, the community is protected, our police officers are protected.”
The idea of required body cams was suggested by the President’s Task Force. However, the idea, while generally supported, has been met with some skepticism about how the body cameras would be used, and particularly what would happen with the footage.
Mr. Gascon’s proposal solves that problem.
As the DA pointed out, technology allows us to do things that we could not have done ten years ago. He talked about the ability to collect large databases of video and be able to store them. Cameras, he said have been around for over 20 years in police departments, but storing the video represented a major problem. Cameras are getting smaller and we can now store huge amounts of information.
“Effective July 1 of 2016 I want every arrest conducted by San Francisco Police officer to be accompanied with video from that arrest,” he said. Mr. Gascon explained that not only would it facilitate the work of the prosecutor and defense attorneys in court, but it would foster further transparency with the public.
The technology to do that now exists and he asked for the funding to make sure that they have the technical support to handle that material. If video is not available, he said, “We want a supervisory explanation as to why not.”
He noted that there could be equipment malfunction but “that should happen very rarely.”
The key point, however, is this. Mr. Gascon stated, “I believe that the majority of police officers are honest, hardworking men and women and this is something that they would welcome because it protects them as well as it protects the public.”
And this is the point that I think defenders of the police miss most often – if you have a small number of problem police officers, but allow them to continue to cause problems, you undermine the credibility and trust of all of the good men and women who serve.
When good officers turn their backs on the misconduct of the bad officers, good officers become accomplices. The crime in Baltimore was not simply the work of one police officer who exercised horrendous judgment, it was made possible by the other officers neither stopping him nor coming forward to authorities.
Finally, earlier this week, we ran the article on violence as a tactic. A lot of people missed the point of that column. It was not to defend rioting, rather it was to point out the political powerlessness of people to effect change and the fact that no one really cared about this incident until riots broke out.
If people abhor violence as they say, they need to resolve these problems before they devolve into rioting.
—David M. Greenwald reporting