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What Loretta Lynch Must Do Now

As Baltimore bleeds, the new attorney general needs to shift police culture in a short time

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Loretta Lynch, who waited more than five months to be confirmed as U.S. attorney general, was finally sworn in late Monday morning. “Well, here we are!” she said with a smile, giving a rhetorical wink at the unnecessary and historically long wait Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans forced her to endure. After thanking President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who swore her in, the former Brooklyn prosecutor talked about the support and encouragement she received from her father and mother, the latter of whom “grew up in a world where she was told what she could not do, or who she could not be.” Lynch later spoke of breathing life into the values that live on after we’re dead and gone, and of her confidence that this can be done at the Department of Justice.

 “Because I’m here to tell you,” she said, “if a little girl from North Carolina—who used to tell her grandfather in the fields to lift her on the back of his mule so she could ‘see real high, Grandaddy’—could grow up to become the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America, we can do anything.”

Not much ground was broken in the rest of her brief speech, not that she needed to. What Lynch, the first African American woman to hold that job, has already accomplished is historic, and I’m not talking about the unprecedented wait for a confirmation vote. Her remarks underscored a fact we are reminded of with increasing—and increasingly public—frequency: That we are still at a place in our nation’s maturation process where the mere presence of black people in positions of influence can make history.

Pivoting off the recent series published in their paper’s The Upshot section, The New York Times editorial board on Saturday offered a brief primer on how black men in particular are “forced out of society,” reporting that 1.5 million are “missing” thanks to everything from premature death, criminalization, and the stigmatization of blackness itself that clings to our society like a malignant tumor. I feel “missing” is too poetic a term. As the Times noted, one of every six of us between the ages of 24 to 54 is in jail or in the ground before our time. They aren’t missing. We know where they are.

We received our latest stark reminder of that on Monday morning in Baltimore, about a half-hour’s drive up 295 North from where the new attorney general was speaking, where the funeral for Freddie Gray was taking place. The 25-year-old man died on April 19, a week after suffering a nearly complete severing of his spine and a crushed voice box while being arrested by Baltimore police. Mobile phone video recorded only a snippet of the arrest, showing Gray moaning in obvious pain and asking for an asthma inhaler (which he did not have) as he is taken into a police van that would stop three times before delivering Gray to a hospital. The officers administered no medical treatment for Gray’s devastating injuries, which doctors say must have been caused by “forceful trauma.” The police also confirmed that he was not placed in a seat belt. What exactly happened to Gray to cause those injuries was not captured on film, however, and is being investigated by the DOJ that Lynch now commands.

Gray and his friend had, it seems, committed the crime of making eye contact with the cops and then fleeing. The cops’ charging document claims Gray had a switchblade, but as Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake herself said, that is not necessarily a criminal act. Their decision to run seems to have been an accelerated version of the instinct a lot of black folks feel when we see the police. Gray’s brutal death indicates that merely looking askance at a police officer and choosing to run is a criminal offense, one that might get you the death penalty before even seeing a court or a holding cell.

At the very least, those six Baltimore cops, now suspended, did nothing to prevent Gray from dying. And, if we all have our common sense caps on, it is likely that at least one of them did much worse. One way or another, we’re dealing with a case of police abuse. It may be useful, then, to look at how Lynch dealt with another case of violence against a black man in police custody: Abner Louima. Thirty at the time, Louima was arrested and beaten severely by New York police officers outside of a Brooklyn nightclub in 1997; later they sodomized him with a broken broomstick at a precinct house. Lynch, a senior prosecutor in Brooklyn, got four of the cops convicted on a range of charges.

The cop who was the sodomizer in charge that night, Justin Volpe, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Given that officers who have killed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton, and most recently Rekia Boyd, have thus far gotten off scot free, the idea that an officer who wasn’t captured on film murdering an unarmed black person would get 30 years in jail seems almost quaint. That the woman who got that done is now the nation’s top cop, so to speak, is encouraging.

Less so is the limited time she may have to do her work. Thanks in part to the timing of her predecessor Eric Holder’s retirement and to the Senate GOP’s delay, Lynch will spend only about 20 months on the job, unless the next president decides to keep her.  Still Lynch, a longtime veteran of the DOJ, can accomplish a change of tone, one that can perhaps do more to speed cultural change in law enforcement on the state and local level than did Holder.

The DOJ quite literally tells police where the limits of their power lie. Holder gets a lot of credit, deservedly, for launching more than 20 investigations into police killings and abuse during his tenure. But as the Times noted last week, the department under Holder backed police officers every time an excessive-force case reached the argument phase at the Supreme Court, “[staking] out positions that make it harder for people to sue the police and that give officers more discretion about when to fire their guns.” Lynch should start there by not always taking the cops’ side in the place where, legally speaking, it may make the most difference. True, as the Times notes, the conflict of interest is codified by the DOJ’s oversight of agencies like the FBI. But not only does Lynch understand there are there many instances in which cops are in the wrong, she gets that we should be administering real discipline for those wrongs. Suspensions with pay preserve due process, certainly, but with few exceptions that has become the limit of punishment for often reckless, lethal acts committed largely against people of color by law enforcement.

Protesters are on the streets of Baltimore pleading for that mere visibility, in the hope that the expression of their anger and hurt will help this problem become a higher priority. A new Baltimore Sun investigation shows that Gray’s fate was hardly unique in the city. Still, the nation is more concerned about high school kids throwing rocks at the police who tear-gas them (as they did Monday near Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall) and have clearly targeted those who look like them. Media and the public keep worrying more about smashed police car windows than crushed voice boxes. We need to grasp the notion that police are not above reproach, or the law itself—and we now have an attorney general whose own experience affirms that. If Lynch can focus on making that manifest on a national level, we may have fewer Freddie Grays.