Editorials

No quick fix to the slow-rolling crisis of brutality

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake speaks as Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, center, listens at a news conference Tuesday in the aftermath of rioting following Monday’s funeral for Freddie Gray, who died in police custody.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake speaks as Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, center, listens at a news conference Tuesday in the aftermath of rioting following Monday’s funeral for Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. The Associated Press

A black power structure, a post-Ferguson policy mindset, a public demand for peace from the black victim’s family – in theory, Baltimore should have been amply prepared for the latest death-in-custody outrage.

Yet after a day and a night of violence, the city is smoldering, at least 20 police officers are injured and National Guard troops are patrolling the streets.

As casualties mount and datelines blur – Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, North Charleston, Tulsa – it’s become clear that Americans have winked for too long at police abuses. The breakdown in trust between communities and the law enforcement officers who are supposed to protect them is, as President Barack Obama described it on Tuesday, absolutely “a slow-rolling crisis that has been going on a long time.”

But the Baltimore riots raise dispiriting questions about what cities actually can do in the short term. We should be clear-eyed about those questions, and about the time it’s going to take to solve this problem. But that doesn’t mean we mustn’t continue to try.

Baltimore is notorious for its dysfunctions, and not just because “The Wire” chronicled them on HBO in fictional detail. According to The Baltimore Sun, well before Freddie Gray emerged from a police van with a nearly severed spinal cord on April 12 and subsequently died, excessive force was an ongoing problem there.

The newspaper reported that the city shelled out some $5.7 million in jury awards and settlements for more than 100 police brutality and civil rights violations between 2010 and 2014 – enough to renovate, oh, about 30 playgrounds. Victims included a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 15-year-old boy on a dirt bike, a pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating and an 87-year-old woman aiding her grandson.

But Baltimore isn’t just some aberration, either. Last month, the ACLU of Maryland reported that, in that same four-year period, 109 people had died statewide after police encounters; African Americans, who make up less than a third of the state’s population, were five times more likely to die from interactions with police than white people.

A frequent short-term suggestion is that police forces and those who direct them should look more like the communities they cover. Another is that law enforcement should be less militarized.

Both ideas make sense, and smart mayors, including Sacramento’s Kevin Johnson, are taking them to heart across the nation. Baltimore’s police force is still more than 40 percent white, in a city that is more than 70 percent nonwhite.

But Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is black and so is its police commissioner, Anthony Batts. And their decision on Monday to initially hang back after violence broke out was in line not only with modern law enforcement thinking in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., police unrest, but also with Batts’ experience in California law enforcement, where he dealt with civil disobedience in Oakland.

That decision backfired, and opened the mayor to criticism that she stood by, instead of immediately requesting the National Guard, while people destroyed property.

As Baltimore begins the now-familiar process of mopping up after these latest riots and getting back to business, other solutions will no doubt come up – the potential usefulness of body cameras, for instance, and the need for hard, coherent data on police brutality.

Some ideas will pan out. Some will be too idealistic. Some will be, like this crisis, “slow-rolling.”

But we must resist the temptation, once the smoke clears, to do nothing. We already have too many dispatches, from too many datelines, on the kind of police work we get when we turn a blind eye.

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