No Federal Charges for Police in Freddie Gray Case
The Justice Department has rejected federal charges for the six Baltimore officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray. With Trump rolling back federal oversight, police veteran Neill Franklin says the push for justice and reform has to come from the local level
Aaron Mate: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The Department of Justice says it will not bring charges against any of the Baltimore police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray. In April, 2015, Gray who was black, died from spinal injuries sustained in police custody. The DOJ says there is insufficient evidence to prove the officers violated his civil rights. This means no officers will be held criminally responsible. The six officers previously faced state charges but none resulted in convictions. Neil Franklin is a 35 year police veteran, including a former Chief Trainer for the Baltimore Police Department. He is now Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and he testified for the prosecution in the Freddie Gray case. Neil welcome.
Neil Franklin: Thanks for having me on Aaron.
Aaron Mate: Thanks for joining us. Your reaction to this news coming out of Washington of no federal charges for these officers.
Neil Franklin: I am rather surprised, but not that all six would be dismissed. That there’d be no charges for all six. I thought there would at least be charges for a couple of them, mainly the lieutenant and maybe one or two of the other officers, but to have all six … Yeah, I’m surprised. But then again, when I think about this administration, and I think about now being under the management of Jeff Sessions, some of the things that he has said regarding the direction of the Department of Justice as it relates to consent decrees and as the reach of their oversight of local police departments around the country, now I’m not surprised.
Aaron Mate: Let’s talk about that. Sessions has strongly indicated that the federal monitoring of police departments around the country, which ramped up considerably under the Obama administration, is going to tamp down, decline under President Trump.
Neil Franklin: Yeah, significantly. I think we’re going to see a completely different environment as it relates to that. Now, I personally do believe that the federal government has to be very careful in where it goes in monitoring and with oversight of police departments. But when it comes to the violation of constitutional rights, just like anywhere else in this country, the federal government will take the lead and take charge in that area to ensure that our rights are protected. They need to be very vigilant in this area as it relates to our police departments, especially in this day and age. But I think we’re going to see such a backing off from this administration. I think, number one, they’re going to send the wrong message to our police department and our police leaders across the country.
And I think that, in a profession where there is so much power afforded to those who work in this profession, police officers, those who are supposed to be guardians of our society out there protecting us from each other, from people who want to do you physical harm, but we can take your life away. And then explain it away. There needs to be the proper oversight as it relates to this, and unfortunately, that is our federal government. And under this administration there’s going to be a lot of roll back in that area. What that means is that, we at the local level, the citizens at the local level, are going to have to become involved in this process at the state and local level in ensuring that our states properly oversee the workings of, and the professionalism within our police departments, and the behavior of our police officers and police leaders across the country.
Aaron Mate: So what does that look like at the local level? What sort of policies can people, can communities push for?
Neil Franklin: Well short-term, I think it’s just get involved in the legislative process in your individual states. In the State of Maryland, for instance, we’re paying strict attention to and working with our legislators on everything from policing contracts to the police officers bill of rights. Rolling back or passing legislation that is going be beneficial for the members of the community. Having the proper oversight at the local level. I know we’re having some struggles with police review boards, and how far we, the citizens can be involved in those processes that have typically been held just to law enforcement members having this oversight capability. Being involved in the actual hearings, being involved in the actual decision making process at these hearings when police officers are charged with specific administrative violations, everything from some small internal violations all the way up to excessive force and brutality.
So what this means, is we have to tighten that up. We have to continue to push for more involvement at the citizen level, and making decisions on these review boards. But long-term Aaron, what we need, and I think … Michael Woods, he speaks to this all the time. And that is civilian led policing. We have to get to a place where complete oversight of our local and state police departments is in the hands of the community, of the citizens, by way of oversight boards. Not just when something happens, but we need to be deciding the budgets, we need to be hiring and firing police chiefs, we need to be setting the basic philosophy for how police departments work within our communities and who they answer to.
Aaron Mate: On the issue of the Freddie Gray case, you testified during some of the trials. Can you talk first about some of the concerns you had as a former police trainer about the conduct of the officers here, and the issues that it raised? And also what impact, if any, has that trial and the huge uproar that it caused, or at least that … I refer to Gray’s death … the huge uproar that, that caused, has had on policing in Baltimore?
Neil Franklin: Well, I think it’s had a huge impact upon policing. But let us not forget that Freddie Gray was just a straw on a camels back. When you go back and look at the results of the DOJ investigation, and you look at the hundreds of thousands of unconstitutional stops that were occurring within Baltimore city by the police officers, and the effect that, that had on the community members, mainly young people, Freddie Gray’s incident was just the straw on a camels back, which lead to the unrest, which lead to the young people pushing back or rioting, and the problems that came from that. Then we end up with the trial of the six police officers. One of the things that disturbed me most, as you ask the question, looking back at my career and being the head of training for the Maryland State Police and Baltimore City Police Department, was the … I’m going to say the … When it comes to policy, the nonchalant attitude and disposition that police officers have towards policy, towards general orders.
A lot of our general orders are put in place because of law. So there’s either state law. or federal law, or local law that causes us, and the policing community to put forth orders for our members that pretty much says, this is the law. So this is our policy within our police department and how we want to go about abiding by this particular law. Forcing this particular law. Working within the boundaries of this particular law. And then you have policies that just didn’t come out of thin air. These policies have been, I’m going to say, revised over decades. For instance, the transporting of those who are arrested in these transport vehicles, these vans, and even in our cars. The policies have come about, and have changed over the years because people have gotten hurt, because there have been injuries. And not just injuries of the people being transported but injuries of the officers involved in the transport.
Making sure that the people are properly secured when they’re arrested. And the more secured they are, the safer it is for that person, as well as the police officer. These policies, these general orders are extremely important. And yes, there may be times when you can deviate from these policies, because you can’t create policies that will cover 100% of the issues that may occur out in the streets. But when you do deviate from those policies, you have to be prepared to explain why, to articulate why. What was so unique about these circumstances where I had to deviate from the policies that have been put in place to protect me and protect the people I’m interacting with on a daily basis. The nonchalant attitude that came out in this trial about these policies, and how these policies are not adhered to the way they should be, was quite alarming to me.
Aaron Mate: Right no so-
Neil Franklin: And now we’ve seen changes since then, internally in our department, but it was alarming to me.
Aaron Mate: Right. So one issue that you alluded to is this practice of so called rough rides where the prisoner, the detainee, is in the car without a seatbelt, which obviously, the case of Freddie Gray raised. But yet here, still in Baltimore, there is no outright ban on rough rides at this point, right?
Neil Franklin: Well there’s always, technically there’ve always been bans on rough rides and my point is this. The people you put in to those vans, for instance, as the driver … Goodson was the driver of the van … The people you put in to those vans is your responsibility. Their safety, their security, their well being is your responsibility. It’s your responsibility, and the responsibility of every supervisor who is involved with that transport. So this isn’t something new. And what that means is that there are no rough rides, there are no sudden stops unless it’s an emergency, you’re stopping to prevent yourself from hitting someone. But sudden stops, and sharp turns, and acceleration designed to injure a person, to propel that person, to throw them about in the back of that transport van, that has always been prohibited. Now the question is whether or not it’s been properly enforced by supervisors and by managers. That’s the question, and that’s where I think the responsibility lies.
Anytime you can have a transport van with writing on the inside saying, enjoy the ride, that’s a management problem. That’s a [inaudible 00:12:25] problem. Don’t get me wrong, yes the officers do have that responsibility, but why each and everyone of those transport vans isn’t checked on a regular basis by supervision and management, there you have it.
Aaron Mate: On this front, one of the interesting things that came out of defense case in the Freddie Gray trial, is I remember one lawyer arguing that, in the officers defense, that the Baltimore police force is under resourced, is understaffed, that the officers weren’t given proper guidelines. Did you find that compelling at all?
Neil Franklin: No I don’t. See most of this is just … Even without your policies, even without some of the things you mentioned, it’s just common sense. There’s not a single police officer, at least my belief, that because of the training that we had, because of the state requirements of training being at certain levels across this country, and every state has a regulatory body that is that certified police officers are trained appropriately; and because of that, every single police officer in this country knows that anytime I place someone under arrest, they’re 100% my responsibility. 100% my responsibility, and if I’m a supervisor involved with that arrest, that responsibility transfers to me as well. That being the case I know that, if that person is sick, if that person is injured, then it is my duty to get them the medical attention that they need, or at least to get them check out so that I’m clear.
There’s one thing that all of us know in policing, it’s the term CYA, and I think your listeners know what that means, it’s cover your you know what. Worse case scenario, CYA buddy and all cops know that.
Aaron Mate: So finally, do you think that the failure to bring federal charges here will send a message to officers across the country? As we talked a little bit about earlier, has the art of being a message sent with what we’ve heard from the Trump White House, including President Trump himself recently in a speech encouraging officers to rough up suspects, to not be nice, among other words; do you think that the Trump administration is already had an impact in terms of how police officers are conducting themselves?
Neil Franklin: Well I think it does, and I think it can have an impact regarding the attitude, behavior of police officers across this country. It definitely doesn’t lean towards better policing. It definitely does not lean toward more professionalized policing. But at the law enforcement level, at the street level, cops are going to do what they’ve always been doing. Yeah they may hear the president say something on T.V., but at the end of the day, it’s what the community allows to occur. It’s what the local politicians allow to occur. It’s what those police chiefs, and sergeants, and lieutenants allow to occur. And it doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the White House, we already know we have a significant problem with policing behavior across this country. And the work in changing that is going to take place, and get done at the local level. And I can’t encourage the citizens across this country enough to do whatever they have to do to take these issues into their own hands and move toward civilian led policing.
It’s been done in Toronto, it’s been somewhat done in Detroit, but the jury’s still out on that, they still have a long way to go and they have some adjustments to make, but it has begun and I know, for instance, in Baltimore it definitely needs to be done. I remember when we had the election for Mayor and I was at one of the forums, and I asked each one of the candidates that was on that dais, would they be in favor of civilian led policing? And they all collectively said yes. But what’s holding us up in Baltimore?
Aaron Mate: We’ll leave it on that very poignant question. Neil Franklin, 35 year police veteran including a former chief trainer for the Baltimore Police Department. Now Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. He testified for the prosecution in the Freddie Gray case. Neil Franklin thank you.
Neil Franklin: Aaron thanks for having me.
Aaron Mate: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.