Matthew T. Mangino
April 30, 2015
The headlines read, “Baltimore erupts in violence.” The riot included crowds filling the streets, burning and looting local businesses, and confronting the police and National Guard. The streets were flush with young people set on “avenging” the death of … Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1968, the carnage in Baltimore, and more than 100 other major cities was worse than what was observed this week. Although the buildings ablaze and police dressed in riot gear evoked images of 1968 — it could not compare to the days following the murder of Rev. King.
Rioters terrorized the streets of Baltimore, in a fit of rage over King’s violent death. King was killed April 4; by the morning of April 7, toll of destruction included five deaths, 300 fires, and more than 400 arrests. National Guard troops had to intervene to stop confrontations between unruly groups of white men and rioting African-American men.
As King dealt with unrest in cities around the country he told CBS’s Mike Wallace in 1966, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Baltimore’s current unrest is the result of fatal injuries sustained by a young man in police custody. Freddie Gray was arrested April 12 and died a week later of a spinal injury he allegedly sustained either while being arrested or while being transported in a police van.
His funeral was followed by violent riots and looting, leading the mayor to announce a weeklong curfew and public schools to close.
The rioters set police cars and buildings on fire in several neighborhoods, looted a mall and alcohol stores, set fire to shops and buildings, and threw rocks at police.
In 1968, King peacefully stood in defiance of brutal and discriminatory police practices in the South. Today, protesters across the country have taken to the streets to bring attention to the death of a number of suspects at the hand of police.
Certainly no one condones the violent destruction in Baltimore; but no one can question peaceful protests that attempt to energize communities who are fearful and dismayed by the recurring claims of excessive force by police in places like New York City; Cleveland; Ferguson, Missouri; South Carolina and now Baltimore.
There is no clear definition of excessive force. Police have to use force every day. Often, those decisions are made quickly, in seemingly life-threatening situations. What may be reasonable to a police officer in the street, may not be reasonable to the department’s internal affairs unit or to a police review board or, ultimately, a court of law.
Excessive has different meanings in different jurisdictions Mark Henriquez, project manager for the National Police Use of Force Database Project at the International Association of Chiefs of Police told ABC News.
The Fourth Amendment permits the use of “reasonable” force. The U.S Supreme Court has ruled that reasonableness must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The court said that police offices are “often forced to make split second judgments-in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.”
What often makes matters worse is that few incidents of force result in charges of excessive force, Henriquez said. From 1994-98, his project documented 147,362 incidents of police-related force and 6,163 complaints, only 654 of which were sustained by review boards.
That is only .44 percent of force being considered excessive.
Heather Saul and Andrew Buncombe of the British newspaper The Independent put it best this week: “The words of Martin Luther King . . . echoed around the streets of Baltimore today as people sought an explanation for the violence that wrecked part of the city and stunned the nation.”
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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