Politics & Policy

In Freddie Gray Case, a Baltimore Judge Strikes a Blow for Justice

Protesters confront Baltimore police shortly after Freddie Gray’s death, April 2015. (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters)
Not that it’s likely to be received as such.

If anyone doubted whether it was reasonable for police officers to feel, in FBI director James Comey’s words, a “chill wind” blowing against law enforcement, they had only to look at the prosecution of Edward Nero in Baltimore.

Nero was swept up in Baltimore district attorney Marilyn Mosby’s dragnet and indicted, along with five other officers, for his alleged role in Freddie Gray’s death. The charges against him sounded impressive — he was accused of second-degree assault, misconduct in office, and reckless endangerment — but closer examination revealed that they were worse than frivolous: They were dangerous.

Prosecutors didn’t charge Nero in connection with Gray’s death, but rather his initial arrest. In essence, they claimed that Nero and other arresting officers had a “right to stop” Gray — who’d “fled them in a high-crime area for no apparent reason” — but that they did not have grounds to handcuff him, place him prone on the ground, and search him. Nero, according to prosecutors, was independently liable for an arrest made by other officers on the scene. Moreover, prosecutors claimed that Nero criminally endangered Gray by putting him in the back of a police van without a seatbelt.

In Nero’s case, Baltimore veered dangerously close to essentially arguing that there are only two kinds of stops: lawful arrests and assaults. Baltimore defense attorney Warren Brown summed up the stakes to the New York Times: “If you’re going to go back and charge every police officer whose arrest was determined to be illegal with assault, or every search that’s deemed to be absent probable cause, you’re going to indict the entire police force.”

RELATED: Travesty in Baltimore, Next Chapter: Officer Acquitted in Second Freddie Gray Trial

That’s not to say that arrests should be a zone of immunity for police, but rather that intent matters. And that’s exactly what the judge in Nero’s case found. “There has been no evidence that the defendant intended for a crime to occur,” he wrote in his ruling. Police officers chase fleeing suspects all the time, and if they can go to prison for chasing a man, searching him, handcuffing him, and arresting him after finding what seemed to be an illegal knife, that “chill wind” they feel will become a lot chillier.

To charge an officer with a crime under such circumstances is to stampede directly to the most draconian possible punishment when an array of less-severe measures can serve to check his misconduct and/or compensate those who have been its victims — including departmental discipline and civil damages. But no, in this case, with a mob crying for vengeance, Mosby charged as many people as she could, consequences be damned.

#share#We are now more than one year removed from Gray’s death. In that time, hundreds more black men have died in the course of dramatic crime spikes in major American cities. At the same time, in many of those same cities, police have made fewer arrests, executed fewer stops, and confiscated fewer weapons. At least one prominent skeptic is now asserting that the so-called “Ferguson effect” is the “leading hypothesis” to explain the crime surge, and statistical site FiveThirtyEight has done more than anyone to document its existence in Chicago.

There is a chance that the Nero verdict will strike at least a small blow for sanity and reason, but it’s more likely that the outcome will cause Black Lives Matter and its sympathizers to redouble their efforts. As soon as the decision came down, there was an ugly scene outside the courthouse in Baltimore as protesters chased and surrounded Nero’s family — people unquestionably innocent of any wrongdoing:

No one believes that every single police officer is a person of integrity. And certainly no one with any sense believes that all police are law-abiding. When there is probable cause to believe that an officer has committed a crime, they should face prosecution to the same extent as any other citizen. But when politicians respond to riots with indictments — and then when activists respond to acquittals with chants of “no justice, no peace” — it is certainly understandable that police feel besieged.

It will always be the case that policing violence and criminality is ugly and imprecise. Police who work in America’s worst neighborhoods aren’t going to make every call right, and if the new standard is that even arguably bad calls should be prosecuted, then it is entirely rational for them to adopt less aggressive, more cautious tactics in response.

RELATED: A Prosecution That Threatens a City

Black Lives Matter activists and their white-progressive enablers seem not to care. In the rough calculus of social justice, it appears that lives taken by civilians matter far less than lives taken by police, and if hundreds more have to die to save the few, then so be it. After all, isn’t there an old saying about omelettes and eggs that applies?

Officer Nero rightly walks free. Now would be the ideal time to rethink the anti-police witch-hunt, but I won’t hold my breath. The narrative of police oppression is too fixed in the leftist mind, and progressive elites still have too much to gain by keeping it that way.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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