Freddie Gray's death must continue to be a catalyst for reforms
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Two years after Freddie Gray died at the hands of Baltimore police officers, it's hard to notice any meaningful changes in policing or in the justice system in my city. 

As a long time public defender and Baltimore City resident of 17 years, I have watched progress in Baltimore consistently offset with setbacks, especially since the Uprising, our collective response to Gray's killing.

The city was emboldened and empowered in seeing law enforcement brought to justice when six police officers were criminally charged with Mr. Gray's death.

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However, the court case to follow was a stark reminder that just as easy as hope for change can emerge, it can be stripped away. To my delight, while the officers' trials made their way through Baltimore City Circuit Court, hoards of reporters, literally camped out in town, shined a light on the courthouse where I work.

 

The world could bear witness to the fact that, even in the face of these historic prosecutions, the justice system is racist, classist, and broken. The cops on trial were out on bail while defendants in other less serious cases languished in jail. The cops got specially assigned judges, and motions hearings, which the average person doesn't get.

In courtrooms down the hall from the trials, young black men were being prosecuted for doing exactly what Gray did in fleeing the police. And then, the officers won their cases or had their charges dropped- the ultimate slap in the face to citizens.

With the level of proof offered by the state though, the outcomes were right and the ones I'd want for any clients of mine. It's unclear why the cases against the officers were so weak, but when they ended the city limped onward. The media left for the time being and the spotlight was dimmed, but the system is the same.

In August of 2016, the Department of Justice issued a report on the Baltimore Police Department stretching back to the period following Gray's death. The DOJ report was scathing, to say the least, because it pointed out the inherent racist and illegal practices of the BPD.

The report covers everything from citizen street encounters to the mishandling of sexual assault allegations. The findings were nothing new to anyone who lives in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in the city or is familiar with the criminal justice system. Still, issues that we routinely argue over in court were now being given some real publicity. It was important.

To me, the most telling statistic in the report says that in 26 out of every 27 stops of people on the street no criminal activity took place. Think of all of the harassment, humiliation and mistrust created by these unjustified stops. 

Think of Gray.

In court, am always trying to convince judges that a constitutional violation yielding contraband cannot be considered in a vacuum. Now, the Fed's statistics prove my point.

In January of this year as a direct result of the DOJ report, a consent decree was reached between the federal government, acting on behalf Baltimore citizens, and BPD. The decree is essentially a fully enforceable contract of “negotiated” reforms that BPD must implement or be held accountable by a federal court.

The promise of true reform was watered down by the local police union during reforms discussions. Chiefly, there still won't be true citizen representation on police review boards that decide misconduct allegations internally — a huge component to change.

Worse than the losses in the decree's components though was President Donald Trump administration's attempt to stall and possibly kill the decree. Forget that Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions champion the very illegal tactics outlined in the report as BPD's underlying problems. 

Last month the judge handling the decree had to actually shut down Sessions' delay tactics and order the decree forward. Of course, it moves on with a very different DOJ in place, leaving huge doubts in Baltimore.

While the DOJ publicly investigated BPD, federal prosecutors were watching the BPD's Gun Trace Task Force and seven of its officers. Despite having investigators swirling around the department, these seven cops continuously violated the public trust in 2015 and 2016.

In March, the seven officers in the gun unit were federally indicted on racketeering, robbery and theft charges and they now sit in jail awaiting trial. Hundreds of old and upcoming cases involving the seven are now under review. 

Last week, a client of mine convicted in a trial based entirely on the word of three of the seven indicted cops had his conviction undone and case dismissed. He spent nearly two years in jail. Nearly the entire defense bar knew about the problems with these cops for years, but neither the state nor the courts heard our pleas.

Actually, they heard guilty pleas, but gave us no other recourse to confront the cops with information of their misconduct. It remains to be seen if the indictments will change anything.

Maryland's state legislature is also reluctant to enact true reform, as evidenced by the huge battle over bail during the session that just ended. In February, the Maryland high court enacted a rule (like a law for court) that prioritized non-monetary forms of release over predatory, discriminatory and arguably unconstitutional cash bail. 

Lawmakers had the option to build on the rule change, but could not muster enough support to do so. Instead, bail reform proponents had to fend off bail industry backed efforts to undo the rule change. Fortunately, the efforts failed and the rule change remains.

Beyond the courts, this year alone, we've seen a minimum wage bill vetoed by the mayor. School funding has been cut by Annapolis. This is no legacy of change to build upon from the Uprising.

Fortunately, activists that came of age after Gray's death have emerged as leaders. We have a slew of new progressive city council people and even had a Green Party mayoral candidate garner a record number of votes in November.

Possibilities for change are out there even as setbacks continue to mount.

Todd Oppenheim has been an attorney in the Baltimore City Public Defender’s Office for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter @Opp4Justice.


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