A Call for Reform: In wake of Freddie Gray mistrial, Jewish community, activists call for systemic change

Baltimore Jewish Times
Marc Shapiro, December 22, 2015


After the mistrial of  Officer William Porter, the first of six officers facing charges in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, protesters hit the streets for what they saw as an injustice. But many in Baltimore’s Jewish community say Porter’s complex trial further highlighted the need for police reform and a change in police culture in Baltimore.



“I think there are two general areas that need to be addressed. One of them is police accountability and  the other is, for lack of a better term, cultural sensitivity and a paradigm shift within the culture of policing in Baltimore City and a lot of cities around the country,” said Beth Am Synagogue Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, who is active with Jews United for Justice (JUFJ).

While JUFJ and other activist groups will push for police reform in the coming legislative session in Annapolis, Burg acknowledges that more needs to happen. While he hopes to see implementation of body cameras, better training and better  recruitment, Burg said a big change is needed in police mentality.

“A lot of it is also about how the police begin to see themselves once again as being a part of their communities and the communities building trust with the officers who serve and protect them,” he said.

The day of the mistrial announcement, Wednesday, Dec. 16, there was a tangible police presence in downtown Baltimore, with dozens of police officers at the corners of Fayette Street, other officers behind barricades in front of City Hall and others blocking doors to the courthouse.

The evening was one of peaceful protest as people marched through downtown in the late afternoon into the evening and later assembled at  the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues.

Porter was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless  endangerment in the death of Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while in  police custody earlier this year. A new trial for Porter is set for June 13, 2016.

“I’m disappointed because I thought he would be found guilty of misconduct at least,” said Renaya Nkechi, who was protesting outside City Hall on Dec. 16. “I’m scared for society … where you can be injured in the presence of public servants and they  will turn their back, do nothing  and let you die and then not be held accountable. That’s a scary society. That’s a society we need to address with reform of our police.”

Later that night, about a dozen protestors from the People’s Power Assembly had gathered on the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues, the area that was the epicenter of  unrest during the riots that occurred the day of Gray’s funeral in April.

Elder C.D. Witherspoon of City Revival Ministries was leading the crowd in chants.

“This trial makes it clear that the way our police interact with those they are supposed to serve and protect,  especially in black communities,  is extremely problematic.”

Molly Amster, JUFJ Baltimore director

“I completely disagree with the  decision. I realize that [the jury] had a very tough task, but this is a major blow to the fight for justice in Baltimore and nationally, and I think we missed the opportunity early on to send the message that we are taking a hard line in opposition to police terror,” he said. “We believe that all the officers violated the public trust, and they all could gave done something to prevent Freddie Gray’s brutal and heinous murder, and they really let the general public down.”

JUFJ’s Baltimore director, Molly Amster, said Porter’s trial was  “incredibly complicated” but agreed with a recent editorial in The Baltimore Sun that said the trial shed light on the failings of Baltimore police. “We’re not sure whose depiction of it was worse: the prosecution’s account of police who express a callous indifference to the lives of those they  arrest and then lie to cover for each other or the defense’s picture of a  department so rife with incompetence that their client’s failures were entirely unexceptional,” the editorial said.

“We couldn’t agree more,” Amster said via email. “While the prosecutors failed to convince the entire jury of officer Porter’s guilt, the callousness described by the prosecution and the  incompetence described by the defense further solidified our commitment to achieving police accountability. This trial makes it clear that the way our  police interact with those they are  supposed to serve and protect, especially in black communities, is extremely problematic.”

JUFJ is interested in amending the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, something for which the  organization lobbied in Maryland’s 2015 legislative session and will lobby for again this coming session. Maryland is one of 14 states with a LEOBR  law, which offers protections for law  enforcement who are under investigation or are the subject of formal citizen complaints. Amster argues that LEOBR goes too far and hides misconduct from the public, and reforming it would  increase transparency, citizen oversight and accountability, she said.

“[LEOBR] only serves to protect and shield police officers when they have been accused of misconduct and is a significant barrier to building the community trust that is essential to  improving policing and the community,” Amster said. “JUFJ is advocating for changes that would improve  police-community relations while also working to end the larger,  systemic inequalities that create the desperation that leads to crime in  Baltimore and beyond.”

Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the BJC is going to look at the issue of police reform this upcoming  legislative session. The council will review LEOBR and bills associated with it as they come during the session.

“I think in the end we’ve got to take this day by day,” he said.

Looking forward, it is unclear how Porter’s mistrial may affect those of the other five officers. The next trial, for Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., who drove the van in which Freddie Gray suffered his fatal injury, begins Jan. 6. He faces second-degree depraved-heart murder, among other charges.

University of Baltimore associate professor of law Amy Dillard said the case against Porter was complex, and the jury will be put in similarly unique positions in the upcoming cases.

“The theory is the same. It’s all rooted in this negligence theory or callous disregard for human life. It makes sense that you could assess the viability for the other cases [based on Porter’s case],” she said. “In these cases, the role of the jury is uniquely complex, and  it will demand jurors really draw on personal experience about what is  reasonable or unreasonable conduct.”

Abramson emphasized that Porter’s mistrial was not a conviction or an acquittal, all it meant was 12 jurors couldn’t unanimously agree.

“The most important thing right now is to give the system a chance, and we can deal with it if it doesn’t perform adequately, but I think it will,” he said.

On the morning of Thursday, Dec. 17, the day after the mistrial was  declared, members of the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs, a coalition of more than 50 organizations including JUFJ, held a news conference in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Freddie Gray lived.

Ray Kelly, organizer and resident advocate with the West Baltimore  organization No Boundaries coalition, underscored the importance of the crossroads at which the city sits.

“We as a community can actually take this opportunity to really channel this protest into actual policies. We don’t want to get lost in the judicial proceedings, we want to keep our eyes on the prize,” he said. “Baltimore’s at a critical moment. We can and should make some policy changes right now, and we should develop  systems for actively encouraging and engaging civic discourse in these  reform efforts, especially with black and brown youth in our city.”

In speaking about how the Dec. 16 protests were peaceful, Burg said he looks to the future with hope, and he wishes others would too.

“I think we would be better off as a community if we meet these things — instead of with a feeling of anxiety and fear — if we meet them with a willingness to be hopeful about the future,” he said “These moments in history are watershed moments. Either we’re going to grow or see this as something to suffer through together and then business as usual. And we can’t have business as usual. Things have to change, and I’m hopeful that they will.”