The trial of Officer William Porter, the first of six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, ended in a mistrial last week after the jury heard sharply conflicting accounts about the inner workings of the Baltimore Police Department. The prosecution emphasized the department’s comprehensive and clearly written policies and procedures, while the defense asserted that, in practice, officers ignore the formal rules as a matter of course. The two accounts revealed the limitations of a legal approach to police reform, and the necessity for departments and officers to self-critique their practices.
Often, when another officer provides critical feedback that does not affirm the officer’s decisions, such feedback falls on deaf ears. Comments like “You weren’t there” or “You don’t know what you would have done in that situation” are a common refrain. In some respects, this makes sense. In a seminal Fourth Amendment case, Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court held that an officer’s use-of-force decisions “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” It would not be appropriate or fair, for example, to judge an officer based on information that the officer did not have and could not have had at the time he or she acted. But this sensible limitation has, at times, been used in ways that undermine the police mission of ensuring the community’s safety.