Something amazing happened over the course of a recent trial in Baltimore: Witnesses laid out the way that the city’s Gun Trace Task Force acted as a de facto criminal gang, but with the advantages of a police badge and the power of the state. Officers assigned to the unit robbed hundreds of thousands of dollars from drug dealers, pocketing the money. They targeted cars for searches based on makes and models, and stopped adult black men just for carrying backpacks. They drove at groups of men and detained anyone who ran. They bilked taxpayers by charging for fraudulent overtime.
On Monday, something even more amazing happened. Two officers were convicted of racketeering and robbery charges in federal court. They joined six others who had already pleaded guilty. Stories of police misconduct have become bracingly common in recent years, but convictions have remained rare. The failure to convict any Baltimore officer in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray is the obvious contrast, but similar cases all over the country, from Tamir Rice to Eric Garner to Daniel Shaver, have also ended without convictions.
What lessons do the convictions in Baltimore teach about policing the police? The glaring answer is that the American justice system sometimes puts property ahead of humanity. Steal a black life and you can get off in court; steal a couple hundred grand and the long arm of the law will come for you. It’s hard to argue with this explanation, but there are more complex takeaways as well.