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The criminal charges in Freddie Gray's case are a big deal

Baltimore residents celebrate the criminal charges against the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest.
Baltimore residents celebrate the criminal charges against the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

It's big news that the six Baltimore police officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest and death will face criminal charges. And it follows a string of charges against police officers who were involved in the deaths of black men — in the past three months, officers were charged in the killing of Akai Gurley in New York City, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Eric Harris in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

These prosecutions meet a major demand of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which rose to prominence following the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. One of the protesters' major goals has been to get justice for victims of police killings by putting the officers involved on trial.

The latest prosecutions shouldn't be taken as a sign that Black Lives Matter has definitively won and that police will now be held accountable, or at least face trial, for all instances in which they kill someone under questionable circumstances. But they're a stark contrast from the police-involved deaths in 2014 that led to no charges — and lots of public outrage — including Michael Brown in Ferguson; Eric Garner in New York City; John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio; and Darrien Hunt in Saratoga Springs, Utah.

In this context, the new prosecutions — and the public way they're being carried out — are a big deal. They could potentially reshape how officers think about using force, leading them to consider greater restraint in future cases.

Police are given a lot of legal leniency to use force

For decades, police officers have been given wide legal latitude to use force without much real threat of criminal charges. In South Carolina, where a police officer shot and killed Walter Scott, the State newspaper's Clif LeBlanc found that police were charged in less than 2 percent of shootings. In Maryland, where Freddie Gray was killed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland estimated that less than 2 percent of officers in police-involved killings were criminally charged between 2010 and 2014.

MD police killings

Supporters of the law that governs police use of force — which allows police officers to shoot if they have a "reasonable belief" that they are in danger, even if it turns out later that they were not — say it lets police avoid hesitating at a critical, dangerous moment and, as a result, getting killed. But critics say it's also fostered a police culture that resorts to deadly force too quickly without any legal repercussions.

Gray's case is unique in that police didn't directly use force against him; he instead died of a spinal cord injury after officers put him in the back of a moving police van without a seat belt and shackled by his hands and feet, rendering him unable to shield himself from the impact as he crashed into the interior of the vehicle. Still, his death, like others to police before him, became a focal point for the movement trying to push greater accountability for law enforcement.

Rage around such cases has bubbled up periodically for years. In 1999, for instance, Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22-year-old black man with no criminal record, was shot at 41 times by plainclothes New York City police officers after he held up his wallet, which they perceived as a gun. The officers were charged but acquitted.

But the conversation around these issues seems to have intensified, focusing on a broader, cultural law enforcement issue — not just problems within high-profile departments in New York or Los Angeles  — and it may force a change around the country. Not only have several cases this year resulted in criminal charges, but racial disparities in police use of force are now a mainstream issue. President Barack Obama talked about Baltimore and Freddie Gray last week. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic contender for the 2016 presidential race, dedicated a significant portion of her first major campaign speech to this issue. And police killings of black men now get more mainstream media attention than ever before.

Ferguson, for example, was the biggest story on Twitter last year, according to research firm Echelon Insights. This massive attention on social media pushed these issues to the forefront, pushing mainstream news outlets to take a serious look at the long history of racial disparities in police use of force.

2014 Twitter news

(Echelon Insights)

More prosecutions are a step forward, but not a total fix

Of course, criminal charges and media attention by themselves don't solve all problems over police use of force and racial disparities in criminal justice. Drug laws are still enforced in disproportionate ways — black Americans use marijuana at about the same rate as their white counterparts, for example, but they're nearly four times as likely to be arrested. Too many police forces around the country still encourage petty arrests, particularly in impoverished and black communities. Community-police relations in many cities are in disrepair — including Baltimore, where police have a documented recent history of brutality, especially against black residents.

It's also unclear whether any of these criminal charges will actually lead to convictions. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

But even without convictions, there are other signs of change. Use-of-force cases often capture the attention of the Justice Department, which has been investigating police departments around the country — like Ferguson's — for years, leading to legal decrees that compel departments to enact sweeping reforms. More police departments, with the encouragement of the federal government, are adopting body cameras, which will help hold cops accountable. The feds no longer encourage excessive arrests through a major funding program for police. And as research and awareness improve, more police departments are training their officers to resist subconscious racial biases that may make them more likely to use force against black suspects.

Still, the prosecutions and media attention alone show police accountability is being taken more seriously. If there are real consequences to a miscarriage of justice, both individual officers and entire police departments are going to be pushed to reconsider their culture and policies around use of force.

Watch: Why it's so important to film police

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