By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – In the wake of the tragic death of Freddie Gray and the protests that followed in Baltimore, Black civic leaders continue to call for wholesale changes in policing and an end to police brutality in urban and predominately Black communities across the nation.
Barbara Arnwine, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan group that works to end racial discrimination and inequality, said that when the Civil Rights Coalition on Police Reform was formed, American society was long overdue for a concerted push to restructure policing in America and to prevent the killing of unarmed African Americans.
“We have been reactive, but we have also been proactively advancing a platform of policy reforms and recommendations for change,” said Arnwine.
Those recommendations include the passage of the “End Racial Profiling Act,” the mandatory use of police body cameras, better accountability of the use and distribution of federal military weapons and equipment to local law enforcement and reform to grand jury process.
Cornell Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP, said that the conversations happening around police killings in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo. and beyond are painful reminders of how this whole issue hits home.
The NAACP is headquartered in Baltimore and Thurgood Marshall, “one of our greatest heroes,” lived in the Sandtown-Winchester community where Gray was arrested, said Brooks.
“We know that when an African American man is 21 times more likely to lose his life at the hands of police than his White counterpart, this is a reason to be fearful and a reason to think about running, but it is certainly not a crime,” said Brooks. “Freddie Gray is not just one victim. He stands in a long tragic line of victims that stretches across the length and the breadth of this country.”
Brooks expressed confidence in Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore state’s attorney who filed formal charges against six police officers who were involved in Gray’s arrest and transport to Baltimore’s Western District police station.
“She did not punt this to a grand jury, which she could have done, but she chose instead as the prosecutor to take responsibility in bringing these charges which prosecutors in jurisdictions all over this country are quite able to do, but too often are unwilling to do,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., a legal group that fights for racial justice and raises awareness of disparities. “This is a beginning, this is not a conviction.”
Ifill said that the Freddie Gray case allows community stakeholders, civic leaders and law enforcement officials to have a deeper and richer conversation about this issue that has roiled the country since last year.
“This year the tide has shifted,” said Ifill. “Why has it shifted? It has shifted, because cell phone videos have shown the entire the country the kind of brutality that many residents of this country live with in terms of their relationship with the police.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has made it harder for police to suppress the record of that brutality by offering a free software application for smartphones that allows users to save video files remotely, so that even if the file is deleted or their phone is destroyed, a record of the encounter still exists.
The Missouri branch of the nonprofit group that defends constitutional rights of individuals and organizations in the U.S. released the iPhone app that enables users to record “exchanges between police officers and themselves or other community members in audio and video files that are automatically sent to the ACLU of Missouri,” according to a press release about the software.
The software, called “Mobile Justice,” also lets users send out alerts to notify others users nearby so that they can come to the scene and record the interaction.
The “Mobile Justice” app is available through the iPhone app store and for the Android platform through the Google Play store.
Pamela Meanes, the president, National Bar Association, a network of predominately Black lawyers and judges,called for changing the laws associated with policing at the state, local and federal levels.
Brooks said that a fundamental shift in the culture and modality of policing in this country is needed.
“It has been said that it’s hard to do or that this can’t be done or that this is something that might be done at some distant point in the future,” said Brooks. “The fact of the matter is there are police departments across the country that have brought down crime increased trust with the community made their police officers safer, prosecutions easier and made it more likely that witnesses will come forward by effectively deploying community policing.”
Pamela Meanes said that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department must be appropriately funded to be able to do the type of patterns and practices investigation that they did following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. That investigation uncovered deep-rooted racial discrimination in law enforcement and the courts that led to resignation of the city manager, court officials and eventually the police chief in the small North St. Louis County town.
On May 8, Attorney General Loretta Lynch opened a civil pattern or practice investigation into Baltimore Police Department (BPD) at the request of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
“Our goal is to work with the community, public officials, and law enforcement alike to create a stronger, better Baltimore,” said Lynch. “The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has conducted dozens of these pattern or practice investigations, and we have seen from our work in jurisdictions across the country that communities that have gone through this process are experiencing improved policing practices and increased trust between the police and the community.
Lynch continued: “In fact, I encourage other cities to study our past recommendations and see whether they can be applied in their own communities. Ultimately, this process is meant to ensure that officers are being provided with the tools they need – including training, policy guidance and equipment – to be more effective, to partner with civilians, and to strengthen public safety.”
Arnwine said that, since the beginning, the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore was rife with injustice.
“We have been saying to the Department of Justice that the reason that a patterns and practice case needs to be opened against the police department in Baltimore. This case of Freddie Gray is systematic of deep and abiding culture within that department that has to be investigated fully and reversed,” said Arnwine. “This is just one step. Every officer needs to be held accountable and the racism that has infected our policing must be stopped.”