Don’t let rioting distract from real issue

The recent rioting in Baltimore is an appalling example of lawlessness. But it also is an unfortunate distraction from an issue that deserves the nation’s full attention: the violent mistreatment of blacks by police.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency Monday night and activated the state National Guard in the wake of widespread rioting and looting in Baltimore. The eruption occurred soon after the funeral of Freddie Gray, who died after suffering severe spinal injuries while in police custody.

Earlier demonstrations and the funeral itself were peaceful. The 2,500-capacity New Shiloh Baptist Church was filled with mourners, including Erica Garner, 24, daughter of Eric Garner, who died in a police choke-hold on a New York City street.

Gray’s family had urged demonstrators to avoid violence. But the rioters, including suspected members of three violent gangs, weren’t listening on Monday.

The rioters looted stores, set car and buildings on fire and attacked police with rocks and bricks. At least 15 officers were hurt, and more than 200 people were arrested. Some officers had broken bones, and one was unresponsive, according to a department spokesman.

While it might be tempting to somehow conflate the riot and the peaceful demonstrations questioning the treatment of Gray while in custody, they need to be viewed separately. The demonstration had its roots in genuine fear, anger and concern on the part of Baltimore’s African-American community; the riot was simply cynical opportunism, an excuse to engage in criminal activities.

Sometimes the significance of a single incident can be blown out of proportion. But the death of Gray is one of a mounting number of police killings of black suspects in their custody, which indicates a frightening pattern.

Public attention was first sparked by the death in Florida three years ago of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by a vigilante. Since then, we have seen the deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers of Jordan Davis in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Ramir Rice in Cleveland, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Garner in Staten Island, Eric Harris in Tulsa and Walter Scott in North Charleston. And many of those deaths would not have come to public attention if they had not been captured by amateur bystanders with cell phone cameras.

The question, then, becomes: How many similar incidents have gone unnoticed and unpunished? How pervasive is this phenomenon?

It bears repeating that most police are honest, professional and mindful of the public’s welfare at all times on the job. A minority of officers abuse their authority and mistreat suspects.

Nonetheless, as these incidents seem to indicate, confrontations where lethal force is the first resort are all too common. And too large a percentage of the victims are black.

It’s a problem that demands urgent national attention, including investigations by the Justice Department. And we can’t let gangs of lawless rioters distract us from that effort.

In summary

Problem of police abuse of black suspects demands a national investigation and efforts to curb it.