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Freddie Gray case is Band-Aid to Baltimore's bigger problem

The first police officer homicide trials in Baltimore's recent history do not deal with excessive force

Todd Oppenheim | 1/26/2016, 8 a.m.
The first police officer homicide trials in Baltimore's recent history do not deal with excessive force. Instead, jurors deciding the ...
Freddie Gray was in perfect health until police chased and tackled him in Baltimore over a week ago, his lawyer said. Less than an hour later, he was on his way to a trauma clinic with a spinal injury, where he fell into a coma. (Photo: Family of Freddie Gray)

— The first police officer homicide trials in Baltimore's recent history do not deal with excessive force. Instead, jurors deciding the cases of the officers involved in Freddie Gray's death will wrestle with the question of whether the defendants' actions were such extreme deviations from standard police policy as to be considered crimes.

The rationale behind the timing of the cases is clear: Protests last April finally pushed the state to charge officers in the death of a citizen while in the line of duty.

But what about the uncharged deaths at the hands of police officers that actually involved the use of force? The names William Torbit, Anthony Anderson and Tyrone West should remind us that the Freddie Gray case serves as a Band-Aid for a gaping wound and a mere starting point for accountability.

Right now, Baltimore and communities across the country call out for the prosecution of police misconduct after having too many incidents brushed aside by authorities. A 2015 ACLU report found that 31 people died while in police custody in Baltimore between 2010 and 2014. Even worse, the numbers may be low because law enforcement agencies do not track deaths during police encounters.

Additionally, a recent Baltimore Sun report revealed $5.7 million in payouts by Baltimore City in lawsuits alleging police misconduct since 2011, not including the $6.5 million Gray civil settlement. These numbers carry great weight with many citizens and have likely influenced the Freddie Gray criminal case.

In Baltimore, the justice system has an ugly history of failing to take on police misconduct, but several recent incidents in particular have touched off an uproar in the community.

To start, in early 2011, the state declined to charge a group of police officers who shot and killed a fellow officer who was not in uniform while wounding several bystanders outside the Select Nightclub.

Officer William Torbit responded to help a security situation at the nightclub and got into an altercation with a supposedly unruly patron in the parking lot. Torbit drew his gun and shot the patron (who later died) at which point other officers arrived and fired into a large crowd, not recognizing Torbit was among them. Responding officers shot Torbit dead and wounded three other innocent civilians. The state felt the actions of the police in firing 42 rounds into a crowd amounted to mere "mistakes" and declined to charge the case.

Then there's the death of Anthony Anderson in 2012 and Tyrone West in 2013, both occurring in police custody.

The state medical examiner ruled Anderson's death a homicide and said West's cause of death could not be determined. Anderson lost his life after Baltimore narcotics' officers attempted to arrest him on the street for making a suspected drug sale. The medical examiner's official cause of death was blunt force trauma, injuries stemming from a ruptured spleen and multiple fractured ribs.

Witnesses described officers slamming Anderson to the ground for no reason. Conflicting allegations of Anderson choking drugs turned out to be false. After an investigation, no charges were filed. Anderson's alleged nonviolent crime should never have led to fatal injuries, plain and simple.