The Freddie Gray trials will divide the city of Baltimore into two parts: what came before he died and what happened afterward. The Grand jury selection is set to begin for the first of six Baltimore police officers charged, according to CBS News.
Gray, 25, suffered a mysterious injury in the back of a police transport van and died April 19, inspiring thousands to take to the streets to protest what they believed was the mistreatment by police of another young black man. The narrative of Gray’s life and death instantly became a thread in the fabric of the Black Lives Matter national movement.
Six police officers were indicted in Gray’s death. Jury selection in the first trial begins Monday. A verdict is likely to set the tone for the city: If Officer William Porter is acquitted there could be protests and possibly more unrest. A conviction could send shockwaves through the city’s troubled police department.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said everything is at stake, adding, “The future of the city is at stake.”
The demonstrations were mostly peaceful for several days, but on the day Gray was buried, looting and rioting started. Businesses were burned down and the unrest ended up costing the city millions of dollars in property damage. The troubles forced an incumbent mayor in the throes of a re-election campaign to drop out of the race, and toppled the career of a reform-minded police chief who was unceremoniously fired. The homicide rate soared and the blood continues to spill on Baltimore’s streets at a pace unseen in decades.
Porter faces charges of assault, manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office. He is being tried first in part because prosecutors want to use him as a witness in the trials of several other officers.
Porter is accused of failing to get medical help for Gray during several stops the van made on its 45-minute trip. At the end, officers found Gray unresponsive and he was taken to a hospital. He died a week later.
Gray was initially handcuffed. Later during his van ride, his legs were shackled and he was placed back in the van without a seatbelt, a violation of department policy, prosecutors have said.
Porter told police investigators that arresting Gray “was always a big scene,” according to a pretrial filing by defense attorneys. Porter indicated that he knew of a previous arrest in which Gray allegedly tried to kick out windows of a police vehicle.
“You know, so he was always, always, like, banging around,” Porter said in the statement excerpted in the filing. “It was always a big scene whenever you attempted to arrest Freddie Gray.”
Defense attorneys say that helps explain Porter’s actions during Gray’s April arrest.
Porter is black. Two other officers are black and the three others are white. They will be tried separately beginning in January; their trials are expected to last until the spring.
The trials, much like Gray’s death, are a microcosm of larger, systemic issues within the city, and the verdicts will have consequences on the city’s immediate future, as well as its healing. Nearly eight months after the city burned, the stakes for the police, the politicians and the public remain high.
When violent crime began surging in May, residents of predominantly poor black neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the bloodshed blasted the police for abandoning their posts— a side effect, some said, of the charges against the officers involved in Gray’s death. The police union, in turn, criticized the former commissioner for failing to protect and support them during the riot.
An independent review of the police response revealed “major shortcomings,” and painted a portrait of an overwhelmed and under prepared department that made tactical errors and endangered officers. Hours before Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was fired in July, the police union issued its own scathing report, and its president called for Batts to “step up.” The U.S. Department of Justice announced a patterns and practice probe into the department stemming from allegations that officers hassled people and used excessive force. Davis stepped in as police chief in July, after a crime spike that saw 45 homicides in a single month.
Since then, Davis has tried to repair the broken relationship between the department and the public.
Apart from the police, the political landscape has changed since Gray’s death. A Democratic primary in April will likely decide who will be the new mayor next November.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was harshly criticized in the wake of the civil unrest for failing to publicly appear for five hours as the city burned and the images were displayed on national television networks. Her decision to enact and maintain a city-wide curfew aggravated protesters. In August, she announced that she would not seek re-election, instead pledging to focus her energy on helping the city heal in the riot’s aftermath. She’s made few comments about the Freddie Gray trials case, despite there being a gag order.