Police on Trial

By: Eryn Halvey

The night of Monday, April 27, the city of Baltimore erupted into violent riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray. At least 20 police officers were injured, 144 cars were set on fire, and 15 structures were burned. 235 people were arrested, 34 of who were juveniles. In response, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a one-week, citywide 10 p.m. curfew that began the night of Tuesday, April 28.

Freddie Gray, aged 25, died on April 19 from injuries to his spinal cord suffered while in police custody. He is the most recent case of an unarmed African American to die after an encounter with the police. During a televised news conference, Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said, “When Mr. Gray was put in that [police] van, he could talk and he was upset. When he was taken out of that van, he could not talk and he could not breathe.”

Gray is not the first person to leave a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries. In 2005, Dondi Johnson Sr. was left a paraplegic as a result of one of these unsanctioned “rough rides,” in which police vans are driven with the intent to cause pain or injury to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees. In 1997, Jeffrey Alston was left paralyzed from the neck down.

American law enforcement is unusually lethal. Even the partial numbers show that last year the police shot and killed at least 458 people. By comparison, police in England and Wales shot and killed no one. One reason why so many American police shoot first is that so many American civilians are armed. This year 46 police officers were shot and killed, last year 52,000 were assaulted. When a police officer is called out to interrupt a robbery, they know that one mistake could cost them their life.

U.S. law-enforcement system is in need of an overhaul. Police should be required to wear body cameras, which would deter bad behavior on both sides. Dismissal of bad officers must be an easier process, and the militarization of the police must be reversed. Too many policemen see their job as to wage war on criminals, while too many poor neighborhoods consider the police an occupying army.

President Obama was right in condemning the Baltimore riots “for senseless violence and destruction.” If it was police brutality that sparked the protests, how can the police be expected to put an end to them? Furthermore, the riots are drawing attention from the real issue of the questions behind Freddie Gray’s death. In this situation, justice requires that both the rioters and the city’s police officers be held accountable.

For portraits of the protests in Baltimore: