Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Some Thoughts on Baltimore

NB: Given the sensitive nature of the subject, I reiterate that this is my opinion and should not reflect the views of my employer. -JPB

The unrest that is afflicting Baltimore in the wake of the arrest and death of Freddie Gray is an unfortunate but predictable outcome of years of abuse and neglect. Last year’s Sun investigation of Baltimore’s police brutality cases shined a light on engrained practice of tolerating and covering up police brutality. Such tactics temporarily shielded the police from outside scrutiny by media and kept Baltimore police out of the national spotlight. But those neighborhoods of Baltimoreans who knew and experienced that abuse have endured it for years with no reckoning of criminal justice.

The city has taken the positive step of making civil suit records public and searchable on a government website, but civil suits may take years to litigate and require resources the most vulnerable of Baltimoreans do not have. Without swift change in the day-to-day functions of city policing, piecemeal efforts on the back-end of reform will fail to quell the anger felt by the people of Baltimore.

Part of this problem is Maryland state law. Police personnel records—namely, their disciplinary files—are generally exempt from public information searches. Thus, officers who have a history of violence have no independent check on their behavior. If the Baltimore PD tolerates violent and repeated officer misconduct, as the Sun’s investigation showed it has, then officers are operating without any meaningful oversight vis a vis their interactions with the public.

Maryland is not alone in this secrecy. All but a handful of states provide considerable protections to police disciplinary records. Most Americans live under legal regimes that force them to trust police to oversee themselves. This imposed faith may work in some jurisdictions, but it is clearly failing in many others.

This widespread lack of accountability degrades the police’s relationship with the people they serve, undermining their legitimacy. As author Maurice Punch wrote, “[T]he crucial test for policing in a democratic system is accountability….For without genuine accountability, there can be no legitimacy; and without legitimacy the police cannot function effectively in democratic society.”

What we’re seeing in the streets of Baltimore is a criminal justice system without accountability and a police force that is suffering a foreseeable crisis of legitimacy.

Those who riot and loot should not be excused for their actions. Violence, mayhem, and theft are wrong, full stop. That does not mean, however, that the policing situation that led us to this point is excusable or without blame. When police abuse citizens with impunity and a community suffers years of abuse, the social fabric that holds communities together will unravel.

The solution is simple to say, but a challenge to implement: transparent and accountable policing. If Freddie Gray were the first man abused by Baltimore Police, we wouldn’t be watching kids throwing bricks at officers on our televisions or in our Internet feeds. The unleashed anger in Baltimore is a result of unchecked police power continuously roaming through neighborhoods and terrorizing their inhabitants.

The institutions that have protected violent officers will continue to do so and resist meaningful police reform, at their peril. The tolerance and protection of violent officers is a threat to both public and officer safety alike. Police cannot arrest their way into a restored community faith and ignoring the demands of peaceful protests will further erode police legitimacy. 

The onus is on state and local governments to make police transparency a priority. Police departments must make themselves more accountable to the people they serve and take proactive steps to reassure their citizens that they will discipline or fire their officers for misconduct.

There is simply no other way to prevent the fire next time. 

bellum medicamenti delenda est

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