I’m sitting at the school of public health about a mile from the court house where the trial of Officer William Porter is taking place. Officer Porter is one of six police officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray. Mr. Gray’s death back in April set off a series events that culminated in a riot on April 27th. (Though some call it something other than a “riot,” I’m sticking to that word because it best describes in English what happened that day.)
The jury in the case is deliberating whether or not to find Officer Porter guilty on a variety of charges. The charges have to do with whether or not Offficer Porter did something criminally wrong by not strapping Mr. Gray into a seat on a police van with a seatbelt and by not calling for emergency medical services when Mr. Gray reported having health issues. The case is not easy as it relies a lot on subjective eye witness testimony. Even the medical examiner’s determination of “homicide” was subjective in that she indicated that she would have called it something else other than homicide if Mr. Gray had received proper medical care immediately upon reporting that he was not well. (Mr. Gray died from complications of a spinal injury sustained at some point between his arrest and his arrival at a police station, with 5 stops in between.)
On the one hand, I would like to think that we live in a country where the rule of law is strong. I’d like to think that the jury will rule fairly and without prejudice in this case. But I know better. There are great disparities in the application of the law in many places within the United States, with Baltimore being one of those places. Here, you are much more likely to be incarcerated if you are Black. You are much more likely to be pulled over and investigated if you are Black. Mr. Gray was Black. He died in the custody of police. His chances of dying in their custody were higher than for a White person of his age and gender.
Yes, the jury is not the police. They are members of the community, and they have been instructed to be as objective as possible in their deliberations. But they’re also human. They know the implications of a verdict that goes either way. Find Officer Porter innocent, and you might have a repeat of the riot in April from an angry populace that will see it as yet another failure of justice toward a population that has been held down and held back by institutional racism for centuries. Find him guilty, and you run the risk of a police department that chooses not to collectively operate at maximum efficiency because there is the possibility of further less-than-optimal encounters with the population. Worse case scenario is that more crime and violence come from the verdict, whatever it is.
As I sit here, looking out at the city, police departments from neighboring jurisdictions are staging at different parts of the city, ready to counter any kind of reaction from the people of Baltimore to any verdict. This is troubling in itself because the “us versus them” mentality is palpable. Bringing in outsiders only complicates things. After all, a White police officer from northern Baltimore County likely doesn’t understand what it means to be Black and living in the poorest neighborhood in Baltimore. There is little opportunity for dialog there and a huge chance of friction.
So we’ll see what happens when the jury reaches a verdict — or if they don’t — and how that will chart the course of police-public interactions in Baltimore for the foreseeable future… And how that will fit into the >50/100,000 homicide rate we’re seeing, the highest it’s been in 30 years.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.