Protesters chant outside the Western District police station, after marchers stopped there following the death of local resident Freddie Gray while in police custody
(Photo: Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Freddie Gray a Victim of America's Longest War

Owing likely to the diligence of a clerk, the Maryland District Court records on Freddie Gray already have been updated. The disposition of Case No. 5B02287290, in which Gray was charged with attempted distribution of an unspecified illegal drug, appears capitalized and in boldface: ABATED BY DEATH.

Someone made the change Tuesday, just three days after the 25-year-old Gray died at Shock Trauma of injuries sustained during his arrest in West Baltimore a week earlier.

Another drug case against Gray, scheduled for Baltimore Circuit Court in May, remains on active status. But certainly the court clerks will find their way to updating that record, too.

"Some people will say his record is irrelevant to the central issues -- how he died while in the custody of Baltimore police, and why the police pursued him on April 12 to begin with -- and I agree. But I mention his record because his encounters with the law stemmed from the enforcement of our drug laws."

Overall, the record on Freddie Gray reveals a young man who had frequent encounters with police as they carried out local operations in America's longest war: the war on drugs.

The record also suggests that, as the years went by, Gray became harder to convict of a drug crime. Police kept arresting him. Prosecutors kept putting him on dockets. But after he was convicted of illegal drug possession when he was 18, Gray mostly avoided jail time.

Court records show not-guilty verdicts, cases dropped, closed or put on the inactive docket. There's one "probation after conviction" for a drug charge last August. Those are pretty typical outcomes for someone police frequently suspect of being a street-level drug dealer.

Most of the charges against Gray were for possession of "controlled dangerous substances," or possession with "intent to distribute" them. That means they thought he was selling drugs -- and, most of the time, the record shows, his alleged product was something other than marijuana.

One time last year, police charged Gray with having "gaming cards, dice." That case was dropped.

In the first three months of this year, Gray was accused of marijuana possession, fourth-degree burglary, second-degree assault, malicious destruction of property and trespassing.

The assault is the only thing on the record that suggests violence, and it was a charge, not a conviction. Though police say Gray had a switchblade-like knife on him when they arrested him April 12, he had never been accused of possessing a weapon.

So, generally speaking, Gray was a low-level, nonviolent offender.

Some people will say his record is irrelevant to the central issues -- how he died while in the custody of Baltimore police, and why the police pursued him on April 12 to begin with -- and I agree.

But I mention his record because his encounters with the law stemmed from the enforcement of our drug laws.

Such encounters occur constantly throughout the country.

Polls show that most Americans think the war on drugs has been a failure, but four decades on,it's still going strong. We still have prohibition instead of regulated commerce, and we still ask cops and federal agents every dayto arrest people who possess or sell illegal narcotics.We still emphasize punishment over treatment and rehabilitation. We still mostly attack the supply of heroin and cocaine, and not the demand for it.

The war on drugs has helped the United States lead the world in per-capita incarceration. It was the driving force of that, but there were other factors, too -- post-Willie Horton, tough-on-crime politics and the push toward zero-tolerance policing.

During the time Martin O'Malley was mayor, he emphasized the need to reduce crime, and his approach, adopted from New York City, was characterized accurately as zero-tolerance. Police made thousands of arrests -- more than 100,000 in 2005 alone -- and violent crime fell, and O'Malley claimed a correlation.

Of course, after he was elected Maryland's governor and left Baltimore, his successors changedthe strategy to one of targeted enforcement ("Bad guys with guns") and away from mass arrests for so-called quality-of-life crimes, and violence fell even further. Homicides dropped to a three-decade-low of 197 in 2011, five years after O'Malley left City Hall.

Now, as he tries to gain national attention as a potential Democratic candidate for president, O'Malley brags about crime reduction in Baltimore, as he's entitled to. But he does not acknowledge the costs. The city paid $870,000 in 2010 to settle a lawsuit with the ACLU and NAACP over the arrests of thousands of people -- mostly young black men -- without probable cause during O'Malley's zero-tolerance days.

But there was another cost in how citizens, particularly people who live in the most distressed neighborhoods, regarded the police -- and vice versa. There's no way to precisely measure the effects of a strategy from a decade ago, but certainly it was something O'Malley's successor, Sheila Dixon, and her successor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, felt needed to be fixed. They rejected zero-tolerance. They brought in police commissioners who took a very different approach. They stressed quality over quantity in arrests. They spoke of restoring trust and gaining the cooperation of citizens in fighting crime.

Still, even with that change, we have the war on drugs. It goes on, day after day, constantly creating needless encounters between police and people like Freddie Gray.

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