It is always amazing to me how quickly we forget the lessons of recent history. In the 1960s, as the U.S. Supreme Court made a series of rulings reining in grossly abusive police tactics and specifying the rights of the accused, officials clamored about how cops would be so inhibited that crime would run rampant. Today, the most lastingly famous of these is Miranda v. Arizona. Who doesn’t recognize the Miranda warning’s “You have the right to remain silent …”?
Lo and behold, instead of hampering law enforcement, it made for vast improvements. But not vast enough, as we’re reminded today.
Baltimore is just the latest reminder that as honorable as most of those in our criminal-justice system are, particularly the cops on the streets, there are still plenty of monsters out there on the front lines who violently abuse their authority, often with deadly results. But this time Baltimore is strikingly different.
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, the new reformist prosecutor in Baltimore, has charged six officers involved in the fatal imprisonment of Freddie Gray with crimes connected to his death. The counts include murder, assault and a range of others. That’s a stark contrast to the many cases where overzealous officers took an unarmed person’s life but escaped any legal accountability. Particularly with smartphone video exposing police brutality, there has been inescapable evidence, sometimes resulting in violent uprisings in several cities, including, of course, Baltimore.
But now the charges against the six cops are already causing handwringing in the law-enforcement community. The cops on the beat, they exclaim, will not be able to do their jobs. They’ll be scared to take assertive action necessary to prevent crime. Fearful of legal second-guessing, they will hold back from enforcing laws against all but the most egregious violations. In other words, we must choose between police brutality and crime.
It is essential to note that the Baltimore six deserve all the protections of the innocent-till-proven-guilty-in-a-court-of-law protection that is at the heart of our Constitution — you know, the ones not afforded to Freddie Gray.
The prosecution must be scrupulously fair, particularly in light of the rioting that followed Gray’s death. Otherwise, it will be vulnerable to accusations that mob rule is dictating how the officers are being treated.
Having said that, it’s equally important that we take another stab at learning from what’s being exposed, and correcting the problems. First of all, we have a law-enforcement problem that must be faced head-on. Far too many in the ranks have gotten away with bullying and sadistic tactics in the name of peace and order. In addition, they’ve acted out their hostility to the poor and particularly people of color to the point that they’re viewed as enemies instead of protectors. That must stop.
Additionally, those police forces are being used to enforce a system of laws and economics that’s grossly unfair. Somehow, America must be returned to the promise of opportunity. Obviously, violent upheaval is not the answer. It’s dangerous, it inevitably harms innocents, and it gives the ones who profit from the status quo excuses to demonize those who demand change. Besides, the point has been made. As in the movie “Network,” they’re “mad as hell and not going to take it” anymore.
There is a problem, however: Those who have risen up are enjoying the rush. But all too often things that are new and exciting get humdrum, we lose interest and the pressure to reform fizzles. The TV cameras move on to something else, and we return to the slow erosion of our country.
In the case of the police, they will change their ways only if law-abiding citizens stay in the faces of their leaders, smartphone video cameras ever at ready. Maybe this time we can make history. Or else.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.