The six Baltimore police officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray – who died last month after being injured in police custody – have been charged criminally, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced Friday.
Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 45, who was the driver of a police van that carried Gray through the streets of Baltimore, was charged with second-degree murder, assault, manslaughter, misconduct and other charges.
Officer William Porter, 25, and Lt. Brian Rice, 41, were charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Sgt. Alicia White, 30, was charged with manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Officer Edward Nero, 29, and Officer Garrett Miller, 26, were charged with assault and misconduct.
We’re going to learn more in the coming days about what the prosecutors say happened, what the officers say happened, and what evidence there is for each story. But police officers getting charged with murder and manslaughter is an extremely rare occurrence, and it forces us to ask a difficult question:
Would this have happened if the protests in Baltimore hadn’t turned violent? Is that what it takes to get accountability when someone dies at the hands of police?
Before I go any farther, let me make it clear that I’m not arguing in favor of rioting. The destruction that occurred Monday night in Baltimore had real victims, including not only the store owners whose businesses were damaged but also the residents of the affected neighborhoods. But it’s hard to argue that it didn’t have an impact.
We have no way of knowing whether Mosby would have pursued these charges had no one outside of Freddie Gray’s friends and family ever heard of him. But it would be foolish to deny that she was under enormous pressure to make a case against the officers involved.
You may have seen the video from Tuesday of a woman named Danielle Williams, who said to MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts:
“When we were out here protesting all last week for six days straight peacefully, there were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us. So now that we’ve burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us.”
She was absolutely right. The violence led to a huge increase in media attention, and even if much of that coverage was sensationalistic, there was also a lot of attention paid to the substantive issues involved. Those included the Baltimore police’s record in dealing with the public generally, and in particular the use of “rough rides” as a method of abusing suspects, which is a likely explanation for how Freddie Gray came to have his spine broken in the back of a police ban.
All that national attention put every public official under pressure to not only bring calm but also to confront the issues that have the people of Baltimore so angry: The police commissioner, the mayor, the governor, and yes, the state’s attorney. While every official would like to believe that he or she would make all the same decisions regardless of whether there are people chanting in the streets and news cameras parked outside their office, they can’t possibly be immune.
There are some interesting details that emerged from Mosby’s press conference, including her statement that Gray’s arrest was unlawful in the first place; while it had been reported that Gray was arrested for possessing a switchblade, Mosby said that the knife Gray had in his pocket was not a switchblade and was perfectly legal. We’ll no doubt be learning more. But what matters is that in this case, unlike so many others (Gray wasn’t the first suspect in Baltimore who went into a police van and came out with a fatal spinal injury), there’s going to be a prosecution.
Perhaps this prosecution — and whatever reforms might happen in the near future — would have occurred if the protests had stayed peaceful. There’s no way to know for sure. But you don’t have to approve of rioting to acknowledge that in this case it may well have led to results.