Friday, May 29, 2020

Minneapolis has

its own 'Freddie Gray'


What is it that police officers

fail to understand?

I call it my First Law of Journalism: Cops Lie. It was something I learned in the early days of my 40-year career as a reporter and editor at The Baltimore Sun, first witnessed during three days spent with a police squad in tactical drug enforcement half a century ago. 

That cops make false arrests, write misleading reports, plant evidence and even steal from people they arrest has long been known -- particularly by people of color in urban America. In Baltimore, that misbehavior became public in recent years through criminal acts by the city police department's now-infamous Gun Trace Task Force. To date, a dozen cops have been convicted.

Before that, five years ago, there was Freddie Gray. He was arrested as a drug suspect in West Baltimore's long-troubled Sandtown neighborhood. The only video of the arrest shows the young black man in handcuffs and leg shackles on the ground, and then being carried and pushed into the back of a prisoner van. Somewhere before the van arrived at the area police station, Gray suffered a broken neck. He died in a hospital a week later.

The anger in Baltimore built up during that week, and exploded after Gray's funeral into days of arson, looting and property destruction. The city's top prosecutor, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, brought criminal charges against six police officers involved in the arrest -- including the driver of the van on the odd count of "depraved-heart murder," in a presumption that Gray, left unrestrained by safety belts in the back of the van, was given a "rough ride."

But there was no definitive evidence, no video of him being injured. And none of the cops was convicted.

In Minneapolis, "Freddie Gray" was a burly black man named George Floyd, 46, who worked as a security guard at a bar -- and there were witnesses as three officers knelt atop his body as he lay face-down and handcuffed in the street next to a parked car. One officer kept a knee pressed on Floyd's neck as he repeatedly cried out, "I can't breathe," and even called out for his mother. A fourth officer stood watching, seeming to do nothing to intervene. Floyd was unconscious when paramedics arrived, and pronounced dead at a hospital.

At least two bystanders had cellphones and recorded video that bore witness through social media to all of Minneapolis and the world of the brutality that marked Floyd's last minutes of life.

And within a day, the rage that had simmered through years of police brutality, malfeasance, insensitivity and even racism across America exploded in Minneapolis. Last night, and into the wee hours today, the local police station -- evacuated and left unprotected -- was burning, while a block-long stretch of looted stores across the street was engulfed in flames.

 A crowd appearing upwards of a thousand strong celebrated in the street, cheering as some people set off fireworks and others hurled wooden boards and flammable debris to fuel the fire rising at the station's lobby entrance.

Fires were also set elsewhere in the city and neighboring St. Paul, and amid that chaos another demonstration some 700 miles away brought a cordon of police officers to protect buildings in the center of Louisville, Ky. Seven people were reported wounded by gunfire during the protest there related to the killing of a black woman, Breonna Taylor, by white police officers in her home two months ago. Television coverage showed a bonfire being stoked in the middle of a street near what appeared to be the courthouse.

Other demonstrations broke out in New York City, Phoenix, Denver, Memphis, and Columbus, Ohio.

Which brings us back to my First Law of Journalism. What, I wondered, would the police have reported about George Floyd's death had there been no video bearing witness. 

According to a New York Times article, the initial statement by the Minneapolis police -- issued before the videos surfaced -- "was short and sanitized. An allegation of forgery. A suspect who 'appeared to be under the influence,' who 'physically resisted officers' and who appeared to be 'suffering medical distress.'"

It took a week for Freddie Gray to die and several subsequent days of the so-called "Baltimore uprising" before prosecutor Mosby announced criminal charges against the six police officers, in what was clearly an effort to calm the city's chaos.

In Minneapolis, the timeline of events is much more compressed -- and perhaps it was surprising that authorities did not quickly lodge an assault charge that would bring at least one of the officers into custody -- the one who had his knee on Floyd's neck -- pending likely indictment by a grand jury. The city did, however, announce the firing of all four of the officers involved in the nightmarish arrest.

But early this afternoon, authorities in Minneapolis announced that the kneeling officer, Derek Chauvin, was now under arrest -- charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. "This case has moved with extraordinary speed," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. "This is by far the fastest we've ever charged a police officer."

There's really nothing new here. We have seen the chaos before, as in the Los Angeles rioting triggered by the recorded police beating of Rodney King more than a generation ago. 

There are multiple factors underlying these incidents, including an erosion of decency in some police officers as they develop a lack of respect and empathy for people as they deal daily with difficult, often tense, encounters. And in response, particularly in minority communities, there is an ever-growing mistrust of law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

In black urban America, they've talked for years about police misconduct.

What some police officers fail to understand now is that technology putting video capability in the hands of nearly every person on the street is showing evidence time after time for that mistrust.

Police could see this coming, having for years tried to prevent people from recording their activities in public view. Courts have ruled consistently that people have the right to record police activity in public, so long as they are not interfering.

And there's another matter some police officers forget -- who they work for.

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