The Conversation on Race Continues

May 18, 2015 —

On Friday, May 15, Professor Paul Butler, Associate Dean Jane Aiken and Dean William M. Treanor brought members of the Law Center community together to continue the conversation on racial injustice in America. Following earlier talks on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., this discussion hit closer to home — examining the death of Freddie Gray following his arrest in Baltimore.  

Butler led the 90-minute event, “The Fire Next Door,” by describing the facts surrounding Gray’s April 19th death: how he fled upon making eye contact with one of three police officers in a high-crime neighborhood. How police, upon searching Gray, found a knife, which led to his arrest. How after being transported in a police van, Gray suffered a spinal cord injury and subsequently died.  

“All of our [criminal justice] students know the case of Illinois v. Wardlow, which says that the police can stop you if they believe that you are evading them in a high-crime neighborhood; it’s reasonable suspicion,” Butler said, noting that there has been much discussion surrounding whether police could legally stop Gray in the first place. “If what they say is true, that he ran when he saw them, then the legal answer is yes, [police] could do that legally in Mr. Gray’s neighborhood — but they couldn’t in a neighborhood that isn’t considered high crime.”

If Gray was carrying a legal knife as opposed to an illegal switchblade, Butler noted, then his arrest was unlawful. And while the exact circumstances surrounding the transport are unknown to the public, six officers have been charged with criminal offenses ranging from assault to second-degree murder.

Aiken helped place these events in context, noting that according to the Baltimore Sun, the city has paid $5.7 million in damages in police brutality cases since 2011. And Gray’s neighborhood has lost a larger portion of its population to prison than any other Baltimore neighborhood, costing a total of $17 million each year. “Imagine what kind of programming you could do for $17 million in this particular neighborhood and it’s being used to incarcerate people in the community,” Aiken said.

Faculty, staff and students — some of whom were familiar with distressed areas of Baltimore — discussed such topics as the use of special prosecutors, the role of the media, changing police culture and how law professors and students can help. “Most of you are going to be lawyers,” Aiken said. “This is really a ripe opportunity to for us to enter at many, many points and make a difference in people’s lives.”

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