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‘After making eye contact,’ Baltimore chases Ferguson

A man is restrained by fellow marchers as he yells at the Baltimore police guarding the department’s Western district police station during a march for Freddie Gray on April 22 in Baltimore. (Alex Brandon/AP)

WBAL reporter Jayne Miller has been covering Baltimore for more than 30 years. The chief investigative reporter for the television station knows Maryland’s largest city as well as, if not better than, many of its elected officials. So, Miller’s reporting on the death of Freddie Gray in police custody has an authority that is hard to dismiss. Today on “Morning Joe,” Miller said something that brought me back to Ferguson.

I was talking to a veteran police officer yesterday who joined the force in the mid ‘90s. He said to me, ‘You know, back in the day, 20 years ago, making an arrest was the last resort.’ What we have seen in this city and in many urban areas over the last 20 years is ‘zero-tolerance’ policing. We had in 2004, [200]5, [200]6, in this city under the mayoral term of Martin O’Malley, there were 100,000 arrests per year in a city of 620,000 people. That’s a lot of arrests. Those numbers have come down, but they are still in the tens of thousands. So, rather than a last resort, what’s happened under ‘zero-tolerance’ policing is that arrests have become the first resort, And you’ve got this very negative interaction going on dozens and dozens of times a day between police officers and the citizens in this city and in many other cities. And when that happens you’re going to have bad results some of the time.

This brought Ferguson, Mo. to mind. The Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police department in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown by former police officer Darren Wilson was filled with damning statistics.

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices overwhelmingly impact African Americans. Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African Americans account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population.

The DOJ findings are not an apples-to-apples comparison to what Miller said. African Americans make up 67 percent of the population of Ferguson, but the police force was 94 percent white at the time of the Brown shooting. An analysis of census data by The Post last August showed there were more white police officers as a percentage of the force (46 percent) than there were whites as a percentage of the city’s residents (28 percent). Also, I should note that unlike in Ferguson, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Anthony Batts, the police commissioner, are both African American. Nevertheless, the impact of those stops and arrests in Ferguson are similar to what appears to be happening in Baltimore.

Later in the interview, I asked Miller to put those 100,000 arrests in Baltimore into context. Were they the same as Ferguson’s? No. “Urinating on the sidewalk, urinating in public, open container,” she said as she decried the “pettiness…of the initial stop” of Gray. Then Miller gave context to why Gray might have run in the first place.

What is he doing? He’s running from the police. Why? Because he knows they’re going to lock him up. That’s why. They look at him. Make eye contact. “Oh, there’s Freddie.” You know, there was a time in policing that they would go up to Freddie and say, “Hey, Freddie! Get off the corner.” They wouldn’t chase him down and lock him up.

As if to prove Miller’s point, the lawyer for the six officers involved in the arrest of Gray, whose spine was nearly severed at the neck and who died a week after he was taken into custody, cited the Supreme Court to justify the police officers’ actions. “There is a Supreme Court case that states that if you are in a high-crime area, and you flee from the police unprovoked, the police have the legal ability to pursue you, and that’s what they did,” Michael Davey told reporters on Wednesday. “In this type of an incident, you do not need probable cause to arrest. You just need a reasonable suspicion to make the stop.”

The lawyer’s assertion that police simply need a “reasonable suspicion” rather than “probable cause to arrest” someone “in a high-crime area” is a chilling one. That puts an entire community at risk of arrest for just about anything. Remember the reason Gray was pursued in the first place? According to Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, “A lieutenant begins pursuing Mr. Gray after making eye contact with two individuals, one of which is Mr. Gray.” After making eye contact….

Now, the Baltimore Sun has reported that Gray was “known to the police.”

Court records indicate that Gray’s arrests were mostly for drug charges and minor crimes, and sometimes were not prosecuted. He had several cases scheduled for trial in the coming months. One case, involving charges for second-degree assault and malicious destruction of property, was scheduled for a June trial.
He also faced drug charges that were scheduled for trial in April and May. He has been found guilty of drug charges in the past; his sentences were unclear from court records.

But after “making eye contact,” all police found on Gray was a knife clipped to his right front pants pocket. A Gray family attorney told reporters that the 25-year-old was carrying a “pocket knife of legal size.”

“I’m not saying Fred was an angel; whatever he did is now in the past. But the police already have made up their minds about who we are,” Rudolph Jackson told The Sun. “They figure every black person with their pants hanging down is a suspect, and they stop them without probable cause.”

The justice department announced Tuesday that it was launching a civil rights investigation into the death of Gray. The bar is necessarily high for federal civil rights charges, but the attending spotlight will bring attention to cases of alleged police brutality. “[R]egardless of how this case plays out,” Conor Friedersdorf writes in The Atlantic, “the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses.” He notes in his piece that catalogues a number of abuses that between 2011 and 2014, and that $5.7 million was paid by that city to the victims of police brutality.

Baltimore has seen the anger and the protests that swamped Ferguson. But it so far has not seen the violence that scarred Ferguson and shocked the nation. Rawlings-Blake and Batts should consider themselves lucky, since now that we know all it took for Gray to lose his life under questionable circumstances was the petty offense of “making eye contact” with the police.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj