Officer's Acquittal Renews Calls For Baltimore Police Reform

Jul 1, 2016
Originally published on July 1, 2016 5:50 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Baltimore, people are looking for accountability in the death of Freddie Gray. Six police officers were charged in Gray's death. But after three trials, there have been no convictions. Some people say only system-wide reform will fix police misconduct. But NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports there are big challenges to that, too.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Shanta Miller's skepticism about Baltimore's police department is deep-seated. She's a childcare worker who lives in Freddie Gray's neighborhood. After the latest officer's acquittal, I asked what she wants now.

SHANTA MILLER: Just that polices be held accountable, which they probably never will in my lifetime.

LUDDEN: Twenty years ago, Miller was arrested for driving without insurance. Like Gray, she says she was put in the back of a police van but not seat belted.

MILLER: It was two white cops. And they told me if I didn't be quiet, they would take me somewhere and kick my butt. So yeah, I had bad experiences with the police also.

LUDDEN: Baltimore has paid out millions to settle civil claims by people injured in police vans in so-called rough rides. And yet, in the trials over Gray's death, police officers testified they had not read department rules that mandate seat belting detainees. And besides, they said, most officers don't use seat belts.

DAVID ROCAH: What does it mean to say that we have a police department that is supposedly governed by rules if there are no consequences for people who break the rules?

LUDDEN: David Rocah is with the ACLU of Maryland. Theoretically, he says, the acquitted officers could still be disciplined internally. He thinks that would boost public trust. But there are hurdles. Say an internal investigation finds an officer should be disciplined or even fired, and then say the police chief agrees.

ROCAH: In Maryland, if all of those things happen, that's only the beginning of the process.

LUDDEN: Police officers' union contract then gives them the right to a mini-trial with a jury of their own fellow officers, who must approve any punishment.

TAWANDA JONES: No justice.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No peace.

JONES: No justice.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No peace.

LUDDEN: Tawanda Jones has been holding weekly protests since her brother died in police custody three years ago after a traffic stop. She wants police held accountable. She has also been lobbying hard at the state capitol.

JONES: I've been living in Annapolis, almost spending the night - testifying 10 o'clock at night. I didn't even know Annapolis stay open that late.

LUDDEN: Jones says a lot of police reform proposals have been tossed out or watered down. But one did pass - a potentially big change to those internal police trials that will take effect this fall. It allows for civilians to take part in them.

JONES: We need to put real people like myself, people that have been traumatized, victims of victims on those boards to let their voices be heard and to make sure justice is served.

LUDDEN: Still, the new law does not require police to include civilians. And if the department wanted to, it would still need the union's agreement. The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to an interview request. Neither did the Union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which opposed that new law. Baltimore does have a civilian review board that can also investigate police misconduct.

KISHA BROWN: We have the ability to be a second eyes and ears on serious matters of concern to the community.

LUDDEN: Before Kisha Brown took over last year, the board was severely underfunded, with just one independent investigator. Now, it has three. The police department is supposed to share with the board all the complaints it gets. Brown says that is not happening. She's trying to get out the word that people can also file a complaint directly with her board.

BROWN: This is one of the drawbacks of the public not really being aware of what civilian oversight is and that we even exist.

LUDDEN: Another challenge, she says, while the board makes recommendations to the police commissioner, he is not required to follow them. Even so, the police union wants to ban the civilian review board from investigating police altogether. It's filed suit.

BROWN: It's their way of trying to thwart the process.

LUDDEN: Brown says the suit has no merit, but she'll take it as a sign she's doing something right. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.