The death of Freddie Gray following his arrest by Baltimore police is the latest in a line of recent high-profile deaths involving police in the United States. There is a lot we still don’t know about what happened, but what we do know suggests two lessons this case might hold for those trying to improve trust in the British police.
The first potential lesson concerns the stunning speed with which the Baltimore authorities conducted their investigation into the death: investigators passed their report to prosecutors just 17 days after Mr Gray died and a detailed summary was released to the public the next day. Compare this to the 15 months that it took the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) in Britain to investigate the death of Andrew Pimlott after he was Tasered by police, or the 12 months taken to investigate the fatal police shooting of Mark Saunders. In 2014, the IPCC aimed to complete half of investigations within the (slightly curious) target of 157 working days (seven-and-a-half months), but only achieved this in “just over a fifth of cases“. As well as being horrible for the friends and family of a person killed by police, and for the officers involved, these delays leave local communities in the dark and may erode public trust in both the police and those who investigate them. Justice delayed is, of course, justice denied.
The IPCC has repeatedly asked for more resources for its investigations, but the gap is so big that the additional funding they’ve recently been given might not be enough: even if they had investigated the Pimlott case (for example) ten-times faster than they did, it would still have taken twice as long as the Gray investigation. At this point we do not know how well the Baltimore investigation will stand up in court. We also cannot know whether the speed of that investigation helped prevent further rioting in Baltimore. But everyone involved in investigating UK deaths in police custody should consider whether there really are good reasons why an investigation here takes 20 times longer than one in the US.
The second potential lesson concerns police efforts to better reflect the communities they serve. At least since the Macpherson Inquiry in 1999, politicians and community leaders have been calling for police recruitment to reflect the ethnic diversity of the population in order to help build trust between the public and the police. The police have responded with a variety of initiatives to increase diversity in their ranks. The riots after Freddie Gray’s death, however, suggest that reflecting the ethnic makeup of communities might be insufficient: non-hispanic white officers are a minority in the Baltimore Police Department, while both the police chief and the mayor are black. The persistence of distrust between the police and minority residents suggests that an ethnically diverse police force can be just as alienated from the police as an all-white one. Clearly the police must look for other ways to ensure the public trust them.
The police in Britain have often had to learn from their own failures, but they can also learn from experiences elsewhere. Senior officers here would do well do keep an eye on happenings across the Atlantic.