Gray Case Lesson: Police, Not Courts, Must Lead Reform

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For some, the Baltimore prosecutor’s decision to drop the remaining cases in the Freddie Gray death was justice, marking the end of what they considered unfair prosecutions of police. Others hoped that a conviction might demonstrate a new level of accountability for police officers, fostering greater trust in black communities for the officers who serve them, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Yesterday’s action shows that despite the forward momentum in some areas of police reform and accountability, the courts are unlikely to lead the effort to restore that trust.  The effort, experts say, will need to begin with police themselves.“You want accountability? Police officers themselves have to start that,” says Charles Wilson of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. “The typical officer, they’re not being given any true incentive to turn in an officer that they know or they see is doing something improper.”

Prosecutions of police officers are rare, and convictions are rarer still, due to the high burden of proof prosecutors face in showing that an officer’s use of force was unreasonable. A record 12 officers were prosecuted for fatal shootings last year, but none was convicted. The Gray outcome showed that convicting police officers remains difficult, even in the post-Ferguson era, says Kami Chavis-Simmons, a former federal prosecutor who now directs the criminal justice program at the Wake Forest University School of Law. The courts are not the only vehicle for change, or perhaps even the best one. “There are a lot of different ways we can deter police misconduct but hold police officers accountable,” she adds. “The criminal justice system is only one of those ways.”


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