People celebrated in the streets of Baltimore at news of the criminal indictments of the six officers for their role in the death of Freddie Gray. State Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who brought the indictments, has been lionized for her quick and decisive action, becoming an overnight media sensation. Many police-reform activists have crowed with joy about the value of protest and even riots in forcing the state to hold these officers accountable. But is the eventual incarceration of these officers the best, most just outcome for them, Freddie Gray’s family, and the African-American communities of Baltimore and the United States more generally?
I myself have called in the past for the establishment of independent police prosecutors or “blue desks” at the state level as an alternative to relying on local prosecutors, who have an inherent conflict of interest in indicting and prosecuting police. These offices could help restore public trust in the criminal-justice system and hopefully get to the bottom of incidents of police misconduct through thorough and independent investigations. Police who break the law and violate the public trust should be held accountable for their actions.
Chicago prison abolition activist Maraime Kaba (@PrisonCulture on Twitter) warns us, however, to be wary of celebrating prematurely: “If your concept of ‘justice’ means convictions for cops, then you should be very concerned because this current system as designed is likely not to deliver. If your concept of ‘justice’ means prison time for cops, then you should be despondent because this system as currently constituted almost NEVER delivers that. If your concept of ‘justice’ means Black people being able to live our lives free from state violence, then today is not a day of celebration.”
The role of the state’s attorney is based on a very degraded notion of justice. It relies almost solely on the notion of punishment in the form of incarceration acting as a deterrent on the behavior of the convicted (specific deterrence) and the rest of us (general deterrence). This whole system assumes that people are simplistic engines of rational calculation whose behaviors can be manipulated by a series of escalating threats and punishments. We know that this system rarely provides real justice for victims or communities and often destroys the lives of those being punished. More importantly, it doesn’t work. For generations we’ve been waging a war on drugs that has relied on the ever increasing incarceration of young people, and yet drugs are cheaper, of higher quality, and easier to obtain than ever before. No amount of mass incarceration seems to make any difference. It’s a little like threatening suicide bombers with the death penalty, in that it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of human motivation.
Sending killer cops to jail will undoubtedly produce a kind of short-term catharsis for the many victims of police misconduct and those that support them. It may produce some sense of much needed justice for the family and friends of Freddie Gray, but will it really make them any safer or reduce the power or predilections of police to go on victimizing poor people of color?