OP-ED: Preventing the next death in police custody


Preventing the next death in police custody

Growing up in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, there was rarely a week that went by when my parents, Bill and Madeline Murphy, weren't strategizing on how to end racial injustice in my hometown. Police harassment was a frequent complaint of our Cherry Hill friends and neighbors. The current mayor's late father, Pete Rawlings, along with other community leaders were often a part of these conversations around our dinner table. These discussions were instrumental in helping "Uncle Pete" launch his storied political career.

They also led to progress in our city, though it's clear today that many of the problems that plagued Baltimore 50 years ago are still plaguing us now.

It upsets me to see the ongoing, disproportionate deaths of African-Americans and Latinos in police custody throughout the United States, whether at the hands of local police departments or by federal law enforcement agents like the Customs and Border Patrol. These deaths and abuses undermine public safety and crime control, yet they are a national epidemic. It upsets me even more that local leaders in my hometown of Baltimore are not taking pre-emptive steps to prevent the next death in police custody from happening.

As a result of my upbringing, I have spent much of my 40-year career addressing the nationwide problems of racial profiling, mass incarceration and law enforcement abuse. (And my brother, William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., a former judge, is representing the family of Freddie Gray, whose death while in police custody has galvanized the city. The views in this op-ed, however, are my own.) Most recently I advised the White House on the creation of the president's Task Force on 21st Century Policing and provided expert testimony on its first day of public hearings.

Here is my five-point prescription for the mayor and the police commissioner to prevent another policing death like that of Freddie Gray.

First, acknowledge that Baltimore police culture and practices are routinely failing the entire Baltimore community. While the violence and deaths in custody are borne the harshest by members of the African American community, over $6 million in tax funds have been paid out in settlements since 2011 in many wrongful death and misuse of force situations. Just think how that money could have been used by the city to improve public safety, schools, employment training, local health clinics and the administration of the courts. When those misguided police officers fail or misguided policies are in place and Baltimore has to pay these enormous settlements, all taxpayers suffer.

Second, read the interim report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century policing. The mayor and police commissioner could immediately begin to implement the recommendations of the report with little cost to the citizens of Baltimore. It is written in even-handed and accessible prose, and it is not rocket science. It is a tremendous resource that all of us can use as a reference on police-community relations. It should be mandatory reading for all members of the Rawlings-Blake/Batts administrations, the City Council and the public at large.

Third, don't waste the city's money fighting the Department of Justice investigation. Embrace the federal officials who are concerned about improving police/community relations in Baltimore and nationwide. I especially encourage Batts and Ms. Rawlings-Blake to read in advance the consent decree entered into by the City of New Orleans, its police department and the DOJ. It is a step by-step guide on improving police practices. Doing so will save Baltimore a lot of angst, time and money. Every dollar spent on defending the indefensible conduct of a few police officers or bad policing policies is a tax dollar wasted.

Fourth, look for federal dollars to help fund the use of police body cameras and their related costs and other reforms. The city of Baltimore receives millions of dollars in Department of Justice funding. By working with the Department of Justice in creative ways, some of this money can be redeployed to invest in real reform on policing practices.

Finally, my fifth and most heartfelt plea: Madame Mayor, I have taken great pride in your ascent, watching you go from young activist to mayor, but you could be a better informed champion of police reform. I know that your dad would want you to be a national star on this topic that was very dear to him, so I urge you to you to embrace all of the resources that are available so that no more unarmed people are hurt or killed by police under your watch.

As someone who wants the best for you and the city of Baltimore, I am giving you the prescription. Please take the medicine.

— Laura W. Murphy is the former director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. Her email is She wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.