A Tale of Two Cities

Protests in Baltimore and Chicago

Arash Azizzada | niXerKG / Flickr

Protesters in Baltimore took to the streets after the death of Freddie Gray (left). In Chicago, people gathered to protest the death of Laquan McDonald by police officer Jason Van Dyke (right).

The news out of Chicago and Baltimore tells a lot about the challenges of guarding against rogue police.

A mistrial was declared in Baltimore after a jury could not reach a verdict in the manslaughter trial of Police Officer William G. Porter in connection with the death of a 25-year old man named Freddie Gray, who died in April from injuries suffered in the back of a police van. Porter had been accused by prosecutors of “callous indifference,” for not calling a medic when Gray asked for one, and for not buckling him into the rear of the police van in which he suffered a fatal spinal cord injury.

Porter was expected to be the first in a series of officers to face trial as a result of Gray’s death. The case had been closely watched, as one of a series of cases across the country that raised questions about the treatment of people of color in police custody.

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The Gray trial was not precisely a matter of race. The judge, the accused officer, and the State’s Attorney all are black, as was Gray. So, too, were a majority of the jurors.

The mistrial came two days after a Chicago Police Department commander, Glenn Evans, was acquitted by a judge after a non-jury trial on charges of aggravated battery. Evans was accused of shoving the barrel of his gun down the throat of a suspect, whose saliva was on the gun.

While very different cases, both appear to demonstrate the trouble in winning a conviction against police officers, where cases often come down to the word of an officer against the word of a suspected criminal.

That troubles many in the community. After the mistrial was declared, the New York Times quoted a young black man, Tavon Haikns, as saying: “We break laws, they break laws, but we get locked up. You know why? Because they’re the police, and they’ve got a badge and a gun.”

But the tendency to credit the word of police appears only slice of why prosecuting bad police is so difficult.

On Thursday the Chicago Tribune published an article that showed another factor: The so-called “Code of Silence” under which officers often fail to challenge false accounts of other officers.

The article details how a drug suspect’s claim of corrupt police in a housing development seemed far-fetched when they were first leveled. But a decade later, documents show that internal affairs had long been aware of allegations of corruption; and two Chicago officers contended they faced retaliation for trying to report the corruption.

The longstanding failures to rein in errant Chicago cops is a major political scandal, receiving heightened scrutiny ever since police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with the murder 13 months earlier of a teenager named Laquan McDonald, just before the videotape of the incident was released under a judge’s order. The video evidence of the shooting appear strikingly different from the account of at least five officers who were on the scene and supported Van Dyke’s account that McDonald was approaching the officers holding a knife.