Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Two cases of alleged police brutality, two ways the system protected violent officers.
On July 27, former St. Louis Metropolitan Police officer Thomas A. Carroll was sentenced to 52 months in federal prison for punching, kicking, and sticking a gun in the mouth of Michael Waller while Waller was handcuffed and in custody. Here’s how the U.S. Justice Department, which prosecuted Carroll on civil rights violation charges, described the crime in a press release:
Carroll, who was on duty that night, responded to Ballpark Village and confronted [Waller], who was already under arrest, handcuffed and seated in the backseat of another officer’s patrol car. Carroll yelled at [Waller], telling him that he made a “huge mistake” and that he “broke into the wrong girl’s car.” Two other officers then drove [Waller] to the central patrol police station and Carroll followed behind in his own patrol car.
Carroll admitted that despite orders from a superior officer to stay away from [Waller], he entered the interview room where [Waller] was handcuffed and being held. Carroll began yelling at [Waller], questioning him about who broke into his daughter’s car and threatening him. Carroll then picked [Waller] up and threw him into a wall. While [Waller] was on the ground and still handcuffed, Carroll punched [Waller] in the torso. Carroll then forced his department-issued service weapon into [Waller]’s mouth and threatened to shoot him. The gun chipped [Waller]’s teeth and bloodied his lip. [Waller] also suffered significant pain and bruising to his torso and ribs.
Carroll’s actions were covered up by a “clique” of local prosecutors, including Bliss Worrell, 28, who was given 18 months of probation for her role. Other prosecutors involved may not be charged at all for lying to federal law enforcement officials about what Carroll did to Waller—as a trade for testifying against the offending officer.
According to U.S. Attorney Fara Gold, who tried Carroll, none of them “seemed to understand the gravity of what occurred," reported The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Meanwhile, that same day, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that her office was dropping all charges against the police officers indicted in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray after a “rough ride” in police custody. This decision came after a judge acquitted three of the six police officers charged in the case and another trial ended in a mistrial. It’s safe to say that the fraternal relationship that evidently existed among St. Louis police and prosecutors did not exist among Baltimore police and its prosecutors—at least not in the Freddie Gray case. As Mosby explained at a press conference Wednesday on why her team dropped its charges:
What we realized very early on in this case was that police investigating police, whether they're friends or merely colleagues, was problematic. A reluctance and obvious bias was consistently exemplified—not by the entire police department, but by individuals within the police department, at every stage of the investigation. ...
There were individual police officers who were witnesses to the case, yet were part of the investigative team; interrogations that were conducted without asking the most poignant questions; lead detectives who were completely uncooperative … by not executing search warrants pertaining to text messages among the police officers involved in the case, creating videos to disprove the state’s case without our knowledge; creating notes that were drafted after the case was launched to contradict the medical examiner’s conclusion; turning these notes over to defense attorneys months prior to turning them over to the state, and doing so in the middle of the trial. As you can see, whether investigating, interrogating, testifying, cooperating, or even complying with the state, we all bore witness to an inherent bias that is the direct result of when police police themselves.
“It became pretty clear from the way this system is set up,” Mosby told Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, “what the likely outcome was going to be.”
The relationship between police and prosecutors can impact the pursuit of justice when it comes to police violence. The same systemic bias that Mosby referenced helped to initially cover up police brutality in St. Louis. In Baltimore, it has potentially helped ensure that no police officer will ever be found criminally responsible for Freddie Gray’s death. The DOJ investigation into Gray’s death may deliver a different version of justice, as it did in St. Louis.
But it’s worth pointing out that Michael Waller, the victim in the St. Louis case, is white. In a similar case, the Justice Department sent Timothy Runnels, an officer in Independence, Missouri, to prison for 48 months for beating and Tasing a teenager nearly to death. The victim in that case, Bryce Masters, is also white. Meanwhile, the families of too many African Americans killed by officers of the law are still waiting for police and prosecutors to come together to deliver justice for them.