Justice demands that participants in the riots are identified, arrested, and charged with whatever crimes they committed. Their unjustifiable violence endangered innocents, destroyed businesses, and harmed the economic future of largely black neighborhoods; they earned the frustrated contempt of Baltimore's mayor and members of its clergy and strengthened the hand of the public-safety unions that are the biggest obstacles to vital policing reforms.
But a subset of Baltimore police officers has spent years engaged in lawbreaking every bit as flagrant as any teen jumping up and down on a squad car, however invisible it is to CNN. And their unpunished crimes have done more damage to Baltimore than Monday's riots. Justice also requires that those cops be identified and charged, but few are demanding as much because their brutality mostly goes un-televised. Powerless folks are typically the only witnesses to their thuggery. For too long, the police have gotten away with assaults and even worse. The benefit of the doubt conferred by their uniforms is no longer defensible.
To any reader who sees Baltimore smoldering and believes that this isn't the appropriate time to start focusing on police misbehavior, I'd have to agree: The right time to start would've been any time over the many years that it's been epidemic. Last week, I wrote about the brutality of police culture in there, drawing on the Baltimore Sun and other news sources that documented cops beating an elderly grandmother, a pregnant woman, and scores of others, prompting almost $6 million in police brutality settlements in the course of a few years.
Why hasn't Wolf Blitzer ever expressed on-air outrage at any of those cases or their sum? It is perfectly possible to laud police heroes, lament injured police officers, and excoriate bad cops for undermining their colleagues and their community. Imagine watching a rioter beat and kick someone on television and knowing that no one in the city would ever attempt to prosecute the attacker. That's the lived experience of many blacks in Baltimore, except that no one was recording when they watched brutality by police who still patrol their streets.
That context doesn't justify riots or looting. Many who've been victimized by Baltimore police have not felt the need to victimize other innocents in turn. But it does help explain the contempt many in Baltimore have for its police department, although even its harshest critics will acknowledge that it isn't all bad and rightly insist that violence should not ever be initiated against police officers.
Why is television news so bereft of this background information?
Watching CNN, you'd think that Freddie Gray's death and funeral are all the context one needs to understand unfolding events. The network need only read from the local newspaper to offer greater context, but its anchors almost never find time to do so. Their commentary is as limited, in its own way, as the circumscribed visuals they run on a loop. And most other broadcast outlets are no better. The cause of Gray's injuries may be beyond the scope of what we know. But the Baltimore Sun made the following information public knowledge last week:
Gray is not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries. Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride. Others have also received payouts after filing lawsuits. For some, such injuries have been inflicted by what is known as a "rough ride" — an "unsanctioned technique" in which police vans are driven to cause "injury or pain" to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit over Johnson's subsequent death.
Let's pause to reflect on that: Baltimore police use rough driving to brutalize suspects often enough that there is a special term in their subculture for doing it! My colleague David Graham, who focused at greater length on "rough rides," points out that the extrajudicial punishments are not unique to Baltimore:
In Philadelphia, the practice is commonly known as a "nickel ride," a reference to cheap amusement-park rides. The Philadelphia Inquirer published a gripping investigation into nickel rides in 2001. The story begins with one not unlike Freddie Gray's: "Gino Thompson stepped into the police van an able-bodied man. He emerged paralyzed from the waist down." The newspaper found 20 cases of injuries, including three spinal injuries and two instances of paralysis. Settlements had cost taxpayers at least $2.3 million at the time, but no Philadelphia cop had been disciplined for the practice. After the Inquirer investigation, the department agreed to end the practice, but a 2013 lawsuit alleged it had been quietly reintroduced.
On Monday evening, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, expressed the hope that protests over Gray's death would ultimately transform if not redeem the city.