It was less than three years ago that the death of Freddie Gray, and the demonstrations that followed, transfixed the nation, though it feels like much longer. That story occurred at a time of intense scrutiny on police around the nation, which began after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer. Since then, the nation’s attentions have shifted, first to the acrimonious presidential election, and then to the never-ending circus of the Trump administration. Yet a court case in Baltimore now ought to be a huge national story.
The Gray case captured attention not only because the facts of Gray’s death were so ghastly—he was arrested for no good reason, thrown into a police van, and within an hour he was in a coma, his spine nearly severed—but also because the protests after his death served as an outlet for years of grievances that black Baltimoreans had accumulated against the city’s police department.
What’s striking about the story of the city’s gun-trace task force is different, in that rather than merely offering a single case that symbolizes an unjust system, it shows how bad behavior by a small group of police can on its own affect a large number of people. In March of last year, the city suspended the decade-old unit, and eight of its nine members were charged by federal prosecutors with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from suspects and defrauding the city for overtime pay using fraudulent documents. Over the last week, as the Baltimore Sun’s excellent crime reporter Justin Fenton has chronicled, task-force member Maurice Ward, a detective who pleaded guilty and is now testifying against his comrades, has unspooled an amazing range of abuses.