So far, no one held responsible for killing Freddie Gray

Baltimore rebellion
Baltimore Rebellion after the police killing of Freddie Gray.

Eugene Puryear is the 2016 Vice-Presidential candidate of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the author of Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America.

Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police officers was ruled a homicide, but it increasingly looks like no one will be held accountable for his killing. Judge Barry Williams issued a fairly expansive ruling on June 23 acquitting Officer Caesar Goodson. This ruling could lead to the dropping of the charges against the other officers who have not yet been tried.

The central contention of Williams’ ruling is that the officers involved may have been negligent, but not criminally so. His ruling outlines doubt over when and how Gray was injured, suggests that the issue of the seat belt was basically a non-issue and that officers were not under any real obligation to seek medical assistance because they could not have known he was so badly injured. He also said he was not convinced that the police had engaged in a “rough ride” to deliberately injure Gray. Ultimately, in his own words, there may have been a number of mistakes but none of them were criminal.

This is outrageous. First and foremost, as the judge and everyone else has acknowledged, Gray was not seatbelted into the van, which is a requirement per police regulations. The judge noted that officers could exercise discretion regarding seat belts, but when you read the order there is discretion only for safety and no one has ever asserted Gray was a threat and therefore couldn’t be belted in.

Second, and more important, is the question of what the officers should have known and why they did not seek medical treatment along the route when Gray asked Officer Porter for it. The judge asserts that while Gray was injured it was not clear until the final stop that he was potentially seriously injured. However when asked by Officer William Porter at an early stop Gray did say he needed medical attention and was obviously seriously injured based on Porter’s own description.

Given the history of rough rides it’s 100 percent clear the officers must have known there was a meaningful chance that an unbelted suspect could be seriously injured. Baltimore police had previously paid out two massive settlements; one for about $7 million dollars to Dondi Johnson who was left paraplegic after a rough ride in 2005 and another for $6 million when Jeffrey Alston was left paralyzed from the neck down in 1997.

So, here we have a group of officers who admittedly illegally arrested Gray, placed him in the van with what was obviously some sort of injury (given that he had to be dragged to the van) and then ignored him when he asked for medical care. Furthermore, they knowingly did not follow all the correct safety procedures to prevent Gray from being injured while being transported. This is critical because it speaks to the motivation. According to internal police documents, since 2012 the police have emphasized the importance of making sure suspects wear seatbelts because the department had paid out so much money to people injured in the back of vans.

All six officers had been on the force since 2012. In a 2012 audit, 0 of 34 detainees were belted, but by 2014 when a new audit was conducted, 17 of 17 were belted. So it begs the question as to why six officers, well trained in a procedure that was consistently stressed by the department as a response to major incidents where people had been seriously injured, would then fail, more than once, to place Gray in a seatbelt. The answer is obvious: they didn’t care. Maybe they weren’t planning to give him a rough ride per se, but they certainly didn’t care if he did get one.

Clearly, there is a double standard for police officers when they kill someone or their actions result in someone’s death. Over the last ten years, while there have been roughly 1,000 people killed by cops per year, an average of less than 5 officers per year have faced charges. In 2014 and 2015, there were no convictions of cops at all. The well-known “Operation Ghetto Storm” (“Every 28 hours”) report compiled by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement estimated, that of the cases they studied, 91 percent of the killings were considered “justified.”

Despite these officers being 100 percent clear about the potential results of their actions, despite not getting medical help for Gray, knowing their actions could injure him, despite the long history of similar actions by Baltimore cops, the judge threw up every excuse he could think of to get them off.

Baltimore police killed Freddie Gray, plain and simple. However, the police in this country are given a license to kill. They are the ones holding the lid on the boiling pot of social contradictions caused by poverty, unemployment and disinvestment. This is not a role that can just be reformed away as it is key to the social stability of the capitalist system. This is why the problem is so intractable, despite even the sustained attention of the past several years.

So while some have pointed hopefully to the tripling of the number of officers charged with murder and manslaughter in 2015, the trials of the officers who killed Freddie Gray show the climate of impunity is still alive and the struggle for even the slightest sense of accountability for police murderers continues.


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