Charging Baltimore cops a promising step for rule of law and international norms

The remarkable announcement last Friday by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby that she had filed charges against the six officers connected to Freddie Gray’s arrest and transport on April 12, saying they illegally arrested the 25-year-old without probable cause, then ignored his pleas for medical help, came to some as a surprise.

After similar cases had resulted in no charges nor prosecutions of police officers – such as those responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO – many seemed resigned to the reality that police in America essentially have free reign to kill with impunity, particularly when the victims are African American. Last week, Mosby proved these doubters wrong, leading to cries of jubilation from some quarters.

People celebrate in the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore after Marilyn Mosby announced that six police officers are being charged in the death of Freddie Gray, in Baltimore. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

People celebrate in the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore after Marilyn Mosby announced that six police officers are being charged in the death of Freddie Gray, in Baltimore. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

In announcing her decision to level 28 counts against the six police officers responsible for Gray’s death, Mosby said, “As the city’s chief prosecutor, I’ve been sworn to uphold justice and to treat every individual within the jurisdiction of Baltimore City equally and fairly under the law.”

While this statement should be considered uncontroversial to any sixth-grader learning the principle of America being “a nation of laws, not men” in civics class, the irrefutable reality of late has been the opposite – that some people are indeed above the law, in practice if not principle.

However, not everyone was equally impressed with the developments last week. Interviewing several demonstrators in Baltimore following the decision, journalist Amy Goodman found some people still expressing skepticism that the police will really face justice.

“I mean, it’s a good start,” said protester Hooley Shelone. “It’s a good start. But it’s just the beginning, you know? That’s why it’s important for us, everybody, to get out here and vote, when it’s time to vote, you know? So we can get people like the Marilyn Mosbys in office, you know what I’m saying?”

“I’m going to say like this,” added Ashton True Nichols:

It’s been times where as though people get 20 and 30 charges and might end up with one. So, what she said sounds good, but we want to see the work, because you go to court, you can have 20 charges and end up with one or end up free. So, if people on the streets do it, imagine what’s going to happen when the police is involved. Now that the police is involved and the police got to do it, you don’t think they got top-notch lawyers? A lot of them charges going to be dropped. Because I ain’t hear the right charge: first degree. They knew what they was doing. Yeah, they knew.

These anecdotal accounts are in line with general opinion, as determined by a poll released yesterday by Pew Research Center. Nearly eight-in-ten blacks (78%), Pew found, and 60% of whites said that the decision to bring charges was right, but far fewer expressed confidence that the investigations into the police will result in justice being served:

While the public generally supports the decision to charge the police officers, most Americans do not have a great deal of confidence into the ongoing investigations into Gray’s death. Just 13% say they have a great deal of confidence into the investigations while 35% say they have a fair amount of confidence. About four-in-ten (44%) have little or no confidence in the investigations. However, the share expressing confidence in the investigations rose during the latter part of the survey period: 40% expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence on April 30, while 50% expressed at least a fair amount of confidence from May 1-3, after the charges were announced.

Pew baltimore opinion survey

Despite the lingering – and understandable – skepticism, it is still significant that these charges were leveled against the six Baltimore cops. According to international norms on law enforcement, when police abuse their power and arbitrarily use excessive force, their actions must be treated as criminal offenses in the justice system, which is what Mosby has done in filing these charges.

As Mosby said in her announcement:

The findings of our comprehensive, thorough and independent investigation, coupled with the medical examiner’s determination that Mr. Gray’s death was a homicide, which we received today, has led us to believe that we have probable cause to file criminal charges. […]

While each of these officers are presumed innocent until proven guilty, we have brought the following charges:

Officer Caesar Goodson is being charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder, involuntary manslaughter, second-degree negligent assault, manslaughter by vehicle by means of gross negligence, manslaughter by vehicle by means of criminal negligence, misconduct in office for failure to secure a prisoner, failure to render aid.

Officer William Porter is being charged with involuntary manslaughter, assault in the second degree, misconduct in office.

Lieutenant Brian Rice is being charged with involuntary manslaughter, assault in the second degree, assault in the second degree, misconduct in office, false imprisonment.

Officer Edward Nero is being charged with assault in the second degree, intentional; assault in the second degree, negligent; misconduct in office; false imprisonment.

Officer Garrett Miller is being charged with intentional assault in the second degree; assault in the second degree, negligent; misconduct in office; and false imprisonment.

Sergeant Alicia White is being charged with manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office.

This development could go a long way into bringing the United States more closely in line with global standards on policing. These standards include the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers, which state,

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:

(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;

(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”

There is still a long way to go before a punishment is leveled against the officers responsible for Gray’s death, but the filing of criminal charges is a promising first step.

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