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Freddie Gray trials: What does a mistrial on police violence mean?

Baltimore protest
Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC

As the first trial in the killing of Freddie Gray ends in a mistrial, there is an eerie feeling that this is a harbinger of what to expect in the remaining trials. We see in the media an enormous amount of speculation about and attention to the Black community’s reaction. There’s a focus on covering Black community’s lack of faith in the justice system and what that will ignite in the form of protests and riots.

The mainstream media has played a major role in exploiting the death of Freddie Gray and Baltimore’s poor Black community, a community that has very little access or a voice beyond their own front stoops. People in and around Gilmor Homes, where the beating of Freddie Gray took place, are now rebuffing requests to speak to the media because there has been a backlash from the police. Media attention has left the community imperiled and feeling used rather than serving to lift up their voices.

Unfortunately, this type of rhetoric and attention pulls us off the real issues.

The media is missing that fundamental changes are still needed to make sure these killings by the police stop happening. We see small steps, platitudes from politicians, show trials, and high-profile firing of police chiefs. If the problem were only a few malicious individuals, small steps might address the problem. But the problem is larger. It’s structural; it involves the entire culture of policing. We need to seize this opportunity to do more than small gestures and move to concrete actions that bring about systemic change.

Until the larger community forces change and no longer excuses institutional racism and police violence, the conditions for police violence and the over-policing on communities will remain. And people, particularly young black people, will still be killed.

The American Friends Service Committee stands with the communities affected by over-policing as they demand deep changes in policing. We know that peace and justice flow from community action, and the call for justice by these communities cannot be ignored.

Led by our experience working with communities suffering from oppressive racist policing, we join the larger community’s call for crucial changes to policing. We call for the following steps for systemic change to begin.

  1. The Department of Justice must fully investigate and bring civil rights charges when applicable against officers when it appears they have broken the public and community’s trust. Only through a justice system that recognizes that “black lives matter” can we achieve even a sense of fundamental balance and institutional fairness.
  2. Individual states, through the governor’s office and/or through state assembly, must appoint special state prosecutors who can fairly judge these matters without the burden of institutional relationships with the police. A special prosecutor who does not rely on the police for information and witnesses in other cases has less of a burden to side with the police and to have grand juries that are convened to vindicate the police version of events.
  3. All civilian review boards must be strengthened with the power to subpoena officers and compel testimony; to complete independent investigations and offer findings; to hold fair and impartial administrative trials; and to enact penalties independent of police department/chief review. These boards should be completely independent from the police department with board members appointed by city councils, mayors, and/ or a direct vote.
  4. Police public behavior must be modified in ways that ensure the highest standards of public accountability. The technology of dashboard and body cameras should be implemented to give an extra layer of safeguard to the community that the police interact with. These videotapes can help make officers more aware and reserved in their behavior and can provide important evidence and indicate need for future training in proper police protocols and conduct.
  5. Legislators must prioritize spending on building relationships between people and allowing more communities to lead themselves. This means more diversity and more training in many police departments and more community policing and civilian review boards. Increased resources should be put toward building not only more accountability but also more peaceful and better-resourced communities.