Nearly five years ago, the prosecution of six Baltimore police officers in the case of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man whose death in police custody sparked historic unrest in the city, ended with no convictions.
After three officers in the case were each tried and acquitted, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby went to West Baltimore — where Gray was raised and arrested — to announce that she would be dropping charges against the remaining officers. Mosby said she “must consider the dismal likelihood” of conviction, describing the decision as “agonizing.”
Despite the failed prosecution, the criminal case against the officers proved a watershed moment. The Freddie Gray case instigated a new push for stronger police accountability laws and set the precedent in Baltimore and in cities across the country for implementing significant police reform.
“That accountability ultimately led to reform, and because of that reform, we had a spotlight on the entrenched police corruption in one of the largest police agencies in the country,” Mosby told CNN.
As a result of the case, officers are now mandated to seatbelt those in custody, call a medic when it’s requested, and intervene when fellow officers cross the line, Mosby said. Additionally, all police vans must be equipped with cameras.
Department underwent a ‘total makeover’
In the wake of Gray’s death, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the Department of Justice to order a civil rights investigation into the city’s police department. The findings revealed a “pattern-or-practice of constitutional violations,” including excessive force and racially biased arrests. The probe ultimately led to the implementation of a federal consent decree in 2017 mandating systemic reform.
Baltimore has since undergone a “total makeover” of its police department after rewriting new policies, according to Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who also serves as the president of the board for the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a national police research and policy organization that advises police leaders on best practices.
Baltimore now has “probably the most robust” use-of-force policy in the country, which emphasizes the “sanctity of life” and de-escalation strategies, Harrison told CNN. The department has also revised policies on stops, searches and arrests, fair and impartial policing, youth engagement, peer intervention, responding to lesser offenses, and behavioral health awareness and crisis intervention.
In 2016, Baltimore was already ahead of many other big city police agencies in assigning body-worn cameras to every sworn member of the department. Officers are using less force and are receiving fewer complaints, a sign that the city is “turning the corner,” Harrison said, but the department still has a “long way to go” in becoming more responsive and respectful to the community.
Despite the significant reforms being implemented, many residents in neighborhoods that are most affected by the city’s ongoing violence have yet to see the cultural changes within the department or experience a more trusting relationship with police, according to Ray Kelly, a lifelong resident and community advocate of West Baltimore. Kelly is also the lead community liaison for the Independent Monitoring Team, which was appointed by a federal judge to help oversee the implementation of the consent decree.
A national reckoning over policing, however, has prompted many agencies to regard Baltimore as a model, looking at its reform policies as they revise their own, Commissioner Harrison said. This comes as the Justice Department has begun ramping up efforts to hold police accountable for misconduct and constitutional violations.
Attorney General Merrick Garland has launched two separate federal civil probes into departments in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by then-officer Derek Chauvin, and in Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by officers in her apartment during a botched raid. Garland said the investigations would determine whether the agencies have a “pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing.”
After a Minneapolis jury found Chauvin guilty on murder and manslaughter charges in Floyd’s death, Commissioner Harrison pledged to “reeducate our officers about our policies and double down on both our policies and training.”
Even as Baltimore approaches the fifth year of its consent decree, the department is not in compliance with “any component” of the mandated reforms, nor have there been any significant changes at the street level, said Ray Kelly.
Consent decree about ‘constitutional policing’
US District Judge James Bredar will determine when the city is in full compliance, but it could take years before residents see and feel a difference in how police engage with communities, Kelly said.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to take to undo the embedded corruption and racism in the Baltimore Police Department,” Kelly said.
The most recent report by the Independent Monitoring Team indicated that the city is on the right track. The report says that Baltimore’s compliance with the consent decree is “no longer merely aspirational, it is plausible,” with foundational reforms in “policies, training and operations in place.”
“Reform is now moving off the drawing board and into practice and performance,” the report says. The agency’s training academy has been leading a rigorous program of in-person and virtual courses on revised policies that the monitoring team praised as its “greatest accomplishment so far.”
The department has designed and completed training on new policies such as stops, searches, and arrests, behavioral health awareness, peer intervention and misconduct investigations.
But reform efforts are routinely eclipsed by the high level of violence that continues to plague Baltimore’s underserved communities, claiming a disproportionate number of Black lives, and perpetuating a cycle of grief and trauma. The city had its second-deadliest year on record in 2019 with 348 homicides. Baltimore recorded 335 homicides in 2020 and is headed on the same path with 167 homicides halfway into this year.
“We have the blueprint the country wants for police reform, but police reform is in no way the definition of public safety,” said Ray Kelly. “If you’re investing in the root causes of crime and violence, you diminish the need for so much aggressive policing in communities. This consent decree is not about public safety, it’s about constitutional policing.”
Commissioner Harrison echoed the same sentiment, arguing that government leaders must address issues such as poverty, lack of education and opportunities, and substandard housing that either “pull or push people into a life of crime for survival.”
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott was among several state and local leaders who last week met with President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss the nationwide surge in violent crime. Biden unveiled a comprehensive crime-fighting strategy after the meeting, emphasizing the need for stricter gun laws. Over 80% of guns in Baltimore are coming from outside of the city and 63% come from out of state, according to the mayor.
“What was the most beneficial and caused the most hope for me is having a president that understands we have to start investing in community-based leaders who run a violence intervention and prevention program,” Mayor Scott told CNN.
Gray’s death set precedent for accountability
On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray encountered police officers in a high-crime area that was notorious for drug dealing. Gray, after making eye contact with police, ran. The officers arrested him on a weapons charge after finding a knife in his pocket, according to prosecutors.
Gray was put into the back of a police van without cameras, “handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained.” He was found unresponsive 40 minutes later upon arriving at the police station, prosecutors said. After slipping into a coma, Gray died one week later from a spinal cord injury. The medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide.
On the day of his funeral, the city broke out in widespread protests that gave way to violence and looting, prompting Gov. Larry Hogan to call in the National Guard and declare a state of emergency. A week into the protests, State’s Attorney Mosby announced charges against the six officers involved in his arrest.
Baltimore recorded 342 homicides that year, a 62% increase over 2014. More than 90% of the victims were Black men. Community-police relations were further strained in 2017 when authorities indicted eight members of an elite plainclothes unit known as the Gun Trace Task Force who were accused of extensive corruption — planting evidence, taking drug dealers’ money and selling seized drugs for their personal profit.
After the case in Gray’s death was closed, then-mayor Rawlings-Blake criticized Mosby for announcing charges too quickly and “bowing to political pressure.” Prosecutors had to rely on “circumstantial evidence” because the van was not equipped with cameras to determine when and how Gray was injured, Mosby told CNN.
Many criminal justice advocates were not surprised by the outcome, while others felt like one of their biggest champions gave up on the fight, Kelly said.
But Mosby’s decision to prosecute the officers “set the precedent to actually indict and arrest officers for their wrongdoing,” Kelly said. “Just creating that conversation that made people feel empowered enough to pursue police accountability was a big deal.”
Even though the officers in the Gray case were not convicted, “every single police officer is now being held accountable for the actions of a few,” Mosby said. Mosby’s office has prosecuted 34 officers since Gray’s death, 27 of whom have been convicted, she said.
This year, Mosby announced she would not prosecute drug possession and other low-level offenses, asserting there is “no public safety value.” For Black Americans, Mosby said, “These offenses can lead to a death sentence.”
Baltimore has had five police commissioners since 2015, including Darryl De Sousa in 2018, who was convicted on federal tax evasion charges and sentenced to 10 months in prison. In 2019, Commissioner Harrison was selected to head the agency given his well-regarded experience leading the New Orleans police department under a consent decree.
“Every agency has an organizational culture and behavior that grows and is cultivated because things are not addressed in the appropriate way,” Harrison said. “I’m here to help create the culture that builds a department that people pay for, deserve and respect.”
During Harrison’s four-year term as New Orleans’ police chief, the department’s relationship with the community and approval rating improved, and the city’s homicide rate was the lowest in decades, according to the city’s former mayor Mitch Landrieu, who selected Harrison for the job in 2014.
“He was the perfect fit to take what was a very difficult task of getting police officers to conform to a new way of doing things and he had enough stature in the community where he was able to bridge that gap,” Landrieu told CNN. “And he was spectacular.”
As chief, Harrison said he “embraced and accepted” New Orleans’ consent decree, which brought him credibility with the community and led to more progress in the department each year.
“We were able to build relationships and we were able to show the community that we can self-police ourselves and provide policing services that are fair and equitable across the city,” he said.
Progress is not resonating with some
Baltimore’s community policing plan, which was approved by the Independent Monitoring Team last year after extensive public feedback, focuses on improving community relations and partnering with leaders to reduce crime. Residents have the chance to work with police to address their needs and build relationships, Commissioner Harrison said.
But the city’s police force faces significant challenges ahead in building trust with the communities it serves and sharing information about reforms being implemented under the consent decree. The progress in changing the department’s culture and practices is not resonating among residents of neighborhoods most affected by violent crime, according to Kelly.
Alex Long, a Baltimore resident and violence interrupter at Safe Streets, a public health program aimed at reducing gun violence among youth, said members of the community still don’t feel the police are there to keep them safe.
“There wouldn’t be such an outcry for help from the communities if there was so much change,” Long said. “Last month, I had to wrestle a young man down because he tried to shoot someone in the head. There were four officers standing on the corner who walked in the opposite direction.”
Commissioner Harrison said the incident was not brought to his attention. “We’re still changing the culture in the police department to a professional culture where officers respond appropriately, and they can get past their fears or perceptions about what they think will happen to them if they make a mistake,” he said.
Similarly, former two-term mayor and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who as mayor initiated the now much-criticized “zero tolerance policy” for violent offenders, is more critical of the touted progress.