The hung jury in the first trial of Baltimore police officers connected with the death of Freddie Gray only serves as the first blow for those hoping to reform the practices of police across the country. Meanwhile, on Monday a Texas grand jury failed to indict anyone involved in the death of Sandra Bland, while San Francisco police officers who wrote racist text messages won legal battles in California.
The case of Sandra Bland is complicated. On the one hand, video shows the state trooper involved in that case unnecessarily escalate a traffic stop, that could have been handled with a warning or a ticket, into a full-blown arrest. On the other hand, the case got notoriety when Ms. Bland was found hanged in her cell in the jail where she was held.
Darrell Jordan, the special prosecutor in the case, indicated that “the case is still open,” and that the decision was only related to Ms. Bland’s death and the conduct of jail staff.
“It’s all in the way you phrase it,” said Mr. Jordan. “The case is not over. That’s what I’m stressing right now. The case is not over.”
Sandra Bland was initially pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, but escalated when Ms. Bland refused to put out a cigarette and was ordered out of the car. She declined at first, which led to a physical struggle in which the trooper pulled out a Taser and yelled, “I will light you up.”
Ms. Bland could be heard saying during the struggle, part of which was out of camera’s view, “You just slammed me, knocked my head into the ground.”
On July 13, three days after her arrest, Ms. Bland was found hanging from a trash bag in her cell. The medical examiner in Waller County ruled Ms. Bland’s death a suicide.
Meanwhile, in California, San Francisco police officers who exchanged racist and homophobic text messages in 2012 will be allowed to keep their jobs and avoid discipline, according to a ruling by a Superior Court judge on Monday.
Part of the problem is that there is a one-year statute of limitations for personnel investigation, and officials “waited too long to take action on the misconduct allegations.”
The judge said he was upholding the ruling “because the Peace Officer Bill of Rights, in particular the statute of limitations, exists to protect not just law enforcement, but the public.”
“It is not in the public interest to let police misconduct charges languish,” he said. “The public has a right to have accusations against police officers be promptly adjudicated.”
City attorneys and police officials said they will appeal the decision.
“For this judge to say he’s thinking of the interest of the public — is the public expected to go on with their business and pretend nothing ever happened?” said Sgt. Yulanda Williams, president of Officers for Justice, an organization representing African-American and other nonwhite officers. “The citizens are still in a situation where they’re questioning whether or not they should embrace law enforcement or fear them. That’s wrong. We need to stop sweeping things under the carpet and deal with it.”
Sgt. Williams was a target of some of the texts that referred to her as a “n-bitch.”
According to the Chronicle, three of the officers involved have resigned, while one has asked to be reinstated.
Even if the officers eventually prevail in this matter, it is hard to imagine they could return to active duty. Any criminal proceeding would immediately focus on the texts and taint the jury.
The only bit of encouraging news is the announcement that UC students won a battle to get the University of California to divest from private prisons.
In November, student protests demanded “UC Davis divest from companies directly and indirectly involved in the prison industry.” They argued, “The prison industrial complex, a system Michelle Alexander aptly calls ‘The New Jim Crow,’ is an industry built off of the perpetual growth of prisons – the ever increasing policing, arrest, and incarceration of people. We have invested in a system that incarcerates more Black men than were enslaved in 1850. We are invested in a system of incarceration meant to brutalize and control Black bodies. We are invested in the business of imprisonment; of women, of immigrants, of queer folks, of all those deemed undesirable by a system which determines humanity to be white, masculine, cis-, and straight.”
The Sacramento Bee reports this morning, “The University of California has dropped its investments in two companies that build and operate private correctional facilities after demands from a student group.”
Students led by the Afrikan Black Coalition, which unites black student organizations at UC’s ten campuses, “began calling for the university to divest about $25 million worth of shares in Corrections Corporation of America and The Geo Group.”
Yoel Haile, the coalition’s political director and a master’s student in public policy at UC Berkeley, told the Bee that “the appeal was part of a campaign against private prison companies, which the students believe have contributed to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans during the country’s ‘war on drugs.’”
“In this critical time in the Black Lives Matter movement, we have to direct our attention to the main institutions that are keeping our people down and locking our people out of opportunities,” he said. “This is one initial battle that we have won on the way to make private prisons illegal.”
UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein told the Bee that “the university has sold its holdings, which made up a small part of its $100 billion portfolio. She said UC has a policy against divestment, but after meeting with representatives from the Afrikan Black Coalition, the university’s chief investment officer no longer considered the companies to meet its sustainable investment policy.”
“It was from a risk perspective,” Klein said. “Does this make financial sense over the long term?”
In Baltimore, in the meantime, the hung jury has to be seen as a setback for prosecutors there. The Baltimore Sun’s analysis on Sunday suggested that the mistrial may not be fatal to their efforts.
They write, “When juries cannot reach a unanimous verdict and prosecutors retry the case before another jury, they win about 70 percent of the time, researchers at the National Center for State Courts found — the same percentage for a first trial.”
The Sun reports today that Officer Porter will be retried but not until June, which the paper speculates creates “a problem for prosecutors who had hoped to call him as a witness at the coming trial of another officer charged in the case.”
In order to get him to testify, “they likely will have to grant him immunity,” experts tell the paper.
“If they want to use those [statements], they have to find a legal way to force Officer Porter to take the stand or negotiate with him so he is willing to voluntarily waive his privilege against self-incrimination,” said Adam Ruther, a defense attorney and former prosecutor.
Meanwhile, Officer Caesar Goodson who faces the most serious charges, will face trial on January 6.
—David M. Greenwald reporting