Gray was killed as the result of a “rough ride”: He was placed in a metal police wagon head first, feet shackled and handcuffed. The officers did not strap him in, and his spine was partially severed in the back of that wagon. Later, his pleas for medical attention were ignored. As I reviewed the evidence, I considered that my office would prosecute any ordinary citizen for such an appalling act, so there was no reason to have a separate standard of justice for police.
I was a young, black, female prosecutor only a few months into the job, and many warned me against such action. There is a higher threshold for officers, I was told. Prosecuting police would damage my political career. Prosecutors partner with police; they don’t charge them. As one of the first to apply the routine standard of justice to police, my team faced long odds. We received death threats and hate mail. People protested outside my home; some posted my address and photos of my children online. None of it deterred our pursuit of justice on behalf of Freddie Gray.
There are differences with the case of George Floyd. For starters, there is clear video of an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes while he gasps for air and pleads to breathe. Such evidence would have been the “smoking gun" in Gray’s case, which is why I was perplexed to hear Hennepin County, Minn., District Attorney Michael Freeman announce Thursday that he hadn’t yet pressed charges because he didn’t want to repeat the “rush to charge” and "rush to justice” of the Gray case.
It’s a demonstrably false and bizarre statement. My office announced charges 18 days after Gray’s arrest, following an extensive review of the evidence, which included an autopsy report declaring his death a homicide. In addition to my office deciding there was sufficient probable cause to charge the officers, a grand jury also found probable cause and indicted the officers. The case lasted 15 months. In no world is that a “rush.” Ultimately, a judge decided against us — but at least we prioritized Freddie Gray’s humanity and the pursuit of justice for his family over another standard for police officers.
Interestingly, one day after those comments, Freeman’s office charged one of the officers involved with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Ultimately, this is not about Freeman or his comments. What matters is justice for the Floyd family, who witnessed the murder of their loved one. This killing, like so many incidents of police brutality and racially-motivated murder — raises existential questions for people of color. Why is a nation that was founded on our oppression threatened by our mere existence? Just these past few months, Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have provided viral, national reminders of our second-class citizenship. CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, who once worked in Baltimore, was arrested Friday by Minnesota state police for the simple act of reporting while black.
And so we ask ourselves over and over, will they ever see our humanity?
The people of Minneapolis need answers. Their protests echo those experienced in Baltimore. They should know that when the dust settles on this incident, their city may never be the same. Since Gray’s murder, Baltimore has had three mayors (one of whom was convicted over corruption) and five police commissioners (one of whom was jailed for tax evasion). A scathing, 163-page Justice Department report exposed a pattern and practice of discriminatory policing, leading to the federal consent decree in 2017. Then came one of the largest police corruption scandals in our country’s history, revealing that rogue officers had planted guns and drugs on citizens and redistributed drugs onto the streets of Baltimore for decades. To say that things have been tumultuous is an understatement; however, the decision that I made in 2015 to charge six police officers for the death of Freddie Gray led to accountability. That accountability led to exposure. That exposure led to reform.
How the Floyd case proceeds is on Freeman’s office and his conscience.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. I hope he is right. In Minneapolis, the path to justice may be long and uneven, as it has been in Baltimore. Leaders, especially prosecutors, must have the courage of their convictions to pursue justice for all those we represent — regardless of color, creed, badge or uniform.