Baltimore’s top prosecutor Marilyn Mosby announced today that all six police officers who had custody of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray when he died after suffering a broken neck in their custody are being criminally charged.
Officer Caesar Goodson – the driver of the police van – was charged with second-degree murder, while charges including manslaughter, assault, and misconduct in public office were brought against five other officers. Goodson, who has refused to cooperate with investigators, faces up to 30 years in prison.
Officer William Porter and Sergeant Alicia D White were charged with manslaughter, assault and misconduct.
Lieutenant Brian Rice, Officer Garrett Miller and Officer Edward Nero were charged with manslaughter, assault, misconduct and false imprisonment.
A clearer picture is emerging of what happened. The first is that Gray had not done anything wrong. He had run away after “catching the eye of a senior officer”, likely because he had a police record but hardly an offense that merited arrest. Reports say that his injuries suggest that he had hit his head on a bolt in the van. It has been established that he was handcuffed and shackled and placed in the back of a van without having a seatbelt on, which is against regulations. Apparently people in police custody are sometimes given what are euphemistically termed ‘rough rides’ in which the vehicle is driven highly erratically with high speed stops and starts so that the person is flung all over and without the ability to use their hands and legs as buffers, they can easily suffer major head injuries.
Meanwhile Kevin Drum who has been pushing the lead paint-crime connection points out something important.
When Freddie Gray was 22 months old, he had a tested blood lead level of 37 micrograms per deciliter. This is an absolutely astronomical amount. Freddie never even had the slightest chance of growing up normally. Lead poisoning doomed him from the start to a life of heightened aggression, poor learning abilities, and weak impulse control. His life was a tragedy set in motion the day he was born.
But even from the midst of my chemo haze, I want to make a short, sharp point about this that goes far beyond just Gray’s personal tragedy. It’s this: thanks both to lead paint and leaded gasoline, there were lots of teenagers like Freddie Gray in the 90s. This created a huge and genuinely scary wave of violent crime, and in response we turned many of our urban police forces into occupying armies. This may have been wrong even then, but it was hardly inexplicable. Decades of lead poisoning really had created huge numbers of scarily violent teenagers, and a massive, militaristic response may have seemed like the only way to even begin to hold the line.
But here’s the thing: that era is over. Individual tragedies like Freddie Gray are still too common, but overall lead poisoning has plummeted. As a result, our cities are safer because our kids are fundamentally less dangerous. To a large extent, they are now normal teenagers, not lead-poisoned predators.
This is important, because even if you’re a hard-ass law-and-order type, you should understand that we no longer need urban police departments to act like occupying armies. The 90s are gone, and today’s teenagers are just ordinary teenagers. They still act stupid and some of them are still violent, but they can be dealt with using ordinary urban policing tactics. We don’t need to constantly harass and bully them; we don’t need to haul them in for every petty infraction; we don’t need to beat them senseless; and we don’t need to incarcerate them by the millions.
We just don’t. We live in a different, safer era, and it’s time for all of us—voters, politicians, cops, parents—to get this through our collective heads. Generation Lead is over, thank God. Let’s stop pretending it’s always and forever 1993. Reform is way overdue.
I am pretty confident that such quick action in Baltimore would not have happened without all the tumult. The question is whether there will be systemic changes in police behavior all over the country or whether riots will have to occur again and again to keep the police in check.