EDITORIAL: Police clashes need focus on prevention

June 24, 2016

The trials that were supposed to heal Baltimore are doing anything but. Not one but two of the police officers accused of crimes in the death of Freddie Gray last year have now been acquitted. Many observers believe that state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby will dismiss the charges remaining against four other officers. In the end, the cops and their supporters will believe they were railroaded, while Freddie Gray’s backers will think that black lives don’t matter.

There are no winners in that formula, and there has to be a better way. There is, and smart cops know it.

Instead of focusing on whether the use of force was appropriate after the fact, the emphasis should be at the front end of a disturbance: Was there any other way to resolve the dispute without violence? If the focus is on prevention instead of justification, police and the civilians they interact with will experience fewer problems.

Baltimore’s experience is not unique. Trial after trial across America has shown how difficult it is to obtain a conviction for police officers accused of brutality. If a case comes down to an officer’s word against a suspect’s, the cop usually prevails.

Judges and juries are more sympathetic to law enforcers instead of law-breakers. They understand how difficult police work is, how hard it can be dealing with street people, addicts, etc. Even when race overlays these incidents, as it often does, black judges and juries in Baltimore sided with the police in the first two trials.

But even hardened criminals should not be beaten or shot unless there is no other way to take them into custody or defuse a confrontation. That’s not fair to them, and it can lead to rogue cops using more force against more people.

Body cameras and better training will help. But it all starts with the officers or deputies responding to that call. They must protect themselves. But as challenging as it may be at times, the use of force must be a last resort, not a first one.