Here is the key finding in the Freddie Gray case: Police had no legitimate reason to arrest him in the first place.
The ostensible charge against Gray – that he had an illegal switchblade – was false, according to Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. The folding knife found in his pocket was of a design that is perfectly legal under Maryland law, Mosby said. Gray never should have been put into the police van where he suffered a fatal injury to his spine.
Now does everyone understand the anger in Baltimore?
The assumption that police officers made from the beginning was that Gray must be guilty of something. He was standing on a street corner – not a crime. He made eye contact with one of the officers who approached him – also not a crime. He ran away – still not a crime.
But he was a young African-American man in a depressed inner-city neighborhood, so he enjoyed a presumption of guilt, not of innocence. He never had a chance.
Running from the police is not a crime. It is true that courts have given police more latitude in “high-crime” areas, so the officers might have been able to defend their decision to chase Gray. But once they had caught him – and found he was not in violation of any law – police had no justification whatsoever for taking him into custody.
Police officers exercise discretion every day. They don’t stop everyone they see walking in the street, selling loose cigarettes, driving with a broken tail light or loitering on a “high-crime” corner. They make choices. Far too often, they choose to assume that black men must be guilty of something – and look for reasons to arrest them.
Imagine what would happen if police cruised the nation’s wealthiest suburbs, looking for excuses to arrest people. Imagine the outrage if officers regularly patrolled golf courses, taking middle-aged white men into custody for illegally betting on the outcome of a match. Imagine how people would react if such a trumped-up arrest ended in the death of the person being arbitrarily detained.
It is gratifying that six police officers have been charged in Gray’s death. Justice, this time, will have a fighting chance. But the “Black Lives Matter” campaign should continue – until they actually do.