Baltimore Police struggle to redefine image amid scrutiny and violence

Baltimore Police fight to define mission under intense scrutiny

Officer Dwyone Jones grinned broadly as he approached a young boy on a porch holding a colorful water gun.

"Getting ready for summertime, huh?" the rookie officer asked, drawing a quick, shy smile from the boy.

One year to the day since the death of Freddie Gray, it was the sort of interaction — a friendly cop on patrol engaging a local kid — that police commanders see as critical to bridging the divide between police and the community that was exposed by the rioting, looting and arson following Gray's death.

A week later, on the anniversary of the worst of the unrest, two plainclothes detectives spotted another boy, this one with a BB gun, across town in East Baltimore. Thinking it was a real handgun, they gave chase, and one of the officers shot the boy, wounding him in his leg and shoulder.

It was just what police commanders have sought to avoid: an incident that revived the belief among many residents that the department is either unable or unwilling to protect the city's poor black neighborhoods without contributing to the violence.

Suddenly, the national spotlight was back on Baltimore. And once again, the city was at the center of the national debate about racial equity and the criminal justice system.

At the scene of the shooting, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis huddled with other top commanders, his face stern. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had appointed Davis after firing his predecessor amid the fallout from the death of Gray, who died after suffering spinal cord injuries in the back of a police transport van, and a skyrocketing homicide rate.

Before a bank of cameras, Davis expressed regret that the boy was injured but defended the officer's actions. He also promised a thorough investigation.

"We're going to get it right," he said, in what has become a common refrain.

Even as Davis has tried to project confidence in his ability to "right the ship" in Baltimore, violent crime has continued at a staggering clip after reaching a per-capita record last year. In the past 12 months, there has been, on average, nearly a homicide per day. In the past week, the pace has been double that.

Davis and cops on the street say their crime-fighting efforts have been hampered, in part, by a surge in resignations following the unrest and by the difficulty of attracting new recruits. Since April of last year, 271 sworn members have left the department, while 86 have been hired. The department currently has 284 vacant positions.

Many officers are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the unrest, according to Davis, and union officials say morale is low. Meanwhile, the department is bracing for the results of a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the trials of six officers charged in Gray's arrest and death.

For the 2,300 members of the Baltimore Police Department, this is the new reality: confronting intense violence under intense scrutiny.

Rookies on the beat

On April 24, 2015, Jones, 43, arrived at the police academy for his first day of training. A Baltimore native, he'd seen the relationship between police and local residents turning "toxic" for years, and felt a desire to change that.

"I was born and raised in Baltimore City, so it was almost like a calling, to give back to my city," he said. "Right now the city is in need. There's definitely a divide between the residents of the city and police. It's a bridge we need to heal."

The next day, a mass demonstration in response to Gray's death brought police skirmish lines to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Two days later, clashes between police and mostly young protesters at Mondawmin Mall turned violent, leading to a night of rioting, looting and arson in the city. More than 150 police officers were injured. Hundreds of people were arrested.

The 28 recruits "were ready to go out there and stand on the line with the guys," said Officer Brooke Varner, who was in the class with Jones. But they were relegated to delivering supplies to drop-off points.

By the end of the 10-month training, not a single recruit had dropped out.

"It's a passion. It's all about what you want to do and what your goals are, and I wanted to be here," said Varner, 24. "So I wasn't going to let that deter me. It's a city that obviously needs some help, it needs some rehashing and a better relationship with the police, so why not start somewhere like that?"

Flash forward one year, to April 19, and Varner, Jones and a third rookie, Officer Huy Dinh, 30, were walking the beat in Southwest Baltimore, each with their own approach.

Jones sought commonalities, asking one young man what he liked on the menu at a local carryout, suggesting he might come back to try it. The young man recommended the cinnamon raisin bread. Jones looked at the man's friend. "You co-sign?" he asked, using slang for agree. The kid smirked.

A few blocks on, Varner started up a conversation with Shane Short, 28, who brushed off her questions about the whereabouts of another neighborhood man.

"You start to recognize the faces of the people who are always in the same place," Varner said. "If they don't want us around, they don't even bother being polite. We're kind of disrupting some people's way of life around here."

"I just let them do their thing," said Short, as the officers moved on. "They've pulled me up a couple times, but they're doing their jobs. Can't blame them."

Marilyn Reeder, 48, and Brunthelia Lake, 53, who both work at a housing center for women and children, smiled and waved at the officers as they passed. They said that when the officers are around, the drug dealers aren't, and it's safer for the center's kids to play outside.

The rookies said such interactions make them hopeful for the future. Varner said she wants to connect with kids, hoping a fresh start "with a new generation" will make a difference. Jones said he wants to foster a better understanding between police and residents.

"I know how I felt as a civilian in the city, so I can relate."

Broader frustration

Not all officers are so optimistic.

With the unrest, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby's decision to criminally charge the six officers involved in Gray's arrest, and recent legislative efforts in Annapolis to overhaul the Police Department's disciplinary process, many Baltimore cops "feel like they aren't getting support from anyone," said Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the local police union.

"The morale is low. They're not happy."

While Davis has come out in support of officers in several recent incidents — including Detective Thomas Smith, the 12-year veteran of the force who shot Dedric Colvin, the eighth-grader with the BB gun, last week — the chief also has bowed to pressure, Ryan said.

Ryan noted the legislative changes to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights and Davis' support for civilian participation on trial boards that review officer misconduct. Some officers feel that Davis has been spending more time "campaigning to keep his job in the current election cycle than running the Police Department," Ryan said.

Officers also are uneasy about animosity toward police across the nation, and the implications for ensuring public safety, Ryan said.

"All of us are walking on eggshells. What's the next explosive thing that's going to set the powder keg off? What's the next matchstick?" Ryan said. "If society wants us to be a softer police department, you have to be careful what you wish for."

Ryan said the "majority of the public really do respect our professionalism and how hard and dangerous our job is, but it's just, unfortunately, the ones who support us aren't getting in front of the camera saying, 'Listen, we love them, we support them, we need them to be more aggressive.'"

Moreover, he said, critics can't expect police to solve all the city's ills.

"It's like a body having cancer. We're not the cure. We're only part of the therapy," he said. "If we ever want to get the Police Department moving in the right direction, which is reducing crime and protecting life and property, we have to work together."

Community questions

At a recent public safety forum in Southeast Baltimore, Celia Babb walked to a microphone, faced Davis and Rawlings-Blake, and posed a question: "How do you repair a family after they've been damaged by the Police Department?"

For Babb, the question was personal. In late March, she said, police searched her 16-year-old son, who has never been in trouble, earns good grades and is involved in sports.

She said her son was warming up the family's car at the time. The officers also searched the car without a warrant — finding nothing — before Babb said she came outside and asked them what they were doing. The officers blew her off, she said.

"It was just like a laughing matter," she said.

The department has tied to make amends — Capt. Martin Bartness, Davis' chief of staff, sent her a personal email — but no progress had been made on a formal complaint filed with the department, Babb said.

Her husband, Lerrie Babb, fumed in frustration over the incident, which he considered police intimidation.

"I can see this happening if a kid's getting himself involved in nonsense and the police pull you up," he said. "But no. He's never been involved with the police. Never."

At the meeting, Davis promised another follow-up. Rawlings-Blake said complaints have declined in recent years, but that such incidents must be addressed because they impair the city's ability to heal and grow. The mayor and police chief gave similar responses to a range of other concerns raised at the meeting.

Catherine Benton Jones, president of the Change 4 Real Community Corporation, asked for more police cameras near Douglass Homes. Patrick Lundberg, president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, said crime data should be better utilized by the department. Louise Moss, staff attorney at the Esperanza Center, said more outreach should be done with the Spanish-speaking community. Juan Nunez, president of the Highlandtown Business Association, said more street lighting is needed.

Some residents expressed concern about the well-being of officers. Douglas Koffman, president of the Canton Community Association, asked what kind of therapy they get for being "put in unbelievable situations" on a regular basis.

Davis said that, as a profession, police need to better address mental health concerns, saying that a number of officers suffer from PTSD.

"We were all knocked back on our heels. We needed to talk about what we had experienced," he said of the riots. "It shouldn't be only after an officer is involved in an incident that they get therapy."

The Rev. Mark Parker, pastor of Breath of God Lutheran Church at Pratt and Clinton streets, asked about officer retirements and departures from the force in the past year, and whether those who remain on the force are being asked to pull extra duty.

Davis said the rash of departures after the unrest has since "leveled off." Still, he said, "It's a challenging time right now to recruit people into our profession."

Retiree returns

Lt. Dameon Carter didn't need recruiting.

A Baltimore native who grew up in the Flag House Courts public housing projects, Carter came out of the Marine Corps in the early 1990s looking for a purpose.

"You're trying to figure out exactly what you want to do, and I always remembered how the police policed my community," he said. Some officers were "overzealous" and aggressive, he said, while others were positive mentors to local kids.

He joined the force in 1994 and over the next 22 years rose to a command position, overseeing detectives in three city districts. Along the way, he earned undergraduate and master's degrees from the Johns Hopkins University, which he said presented new job opportunities.

Last year, after working through the unrest, University of Maryland, Baltimore offered Carter a position overseeing education, training, investigations and law enforcement accreditation. In July, he took the job.

But as he watched the department struggle, he felt he needed to return.

"You feel like you left a couple of your friends on the battlefield," he said.

In January, Carter rejoined the force, agreeing to a $35,000 pay cut to work as a midnight shift commander, he said.

"You have to have the heart to do this. You're not going to get rich."

There is a need for older cops who are "of Baltimore" to help train the next generation of officers and show residents that there is a way out of the poverty and violence, he said.

"When you know the origins of why they're upset, a lot of times you can defuse the situation," he said. "I came from the source of a lot of these fires, and I took that flame and said, 'OK, I'm going to do something positive with it.'"

Sticking it out

At a recent awards ceremony, dozens of cops sat in long rows, awaiting recognition for acts of bravery during one of the most chaotic years in the city's history.

Among those being honored were various members of the department's SWAT team who went into large crowds of rioters last year to pull injured officers out of danger. But most of the officers were there for acts performed outside the public view.

One was honored for saving the life of an infant who'd stopped breathing, another for spotting a man in cardiac arrest while on his way home from work, jumping out of his car to perform CPR until medics arrived. Others received awards for saving a gunshot victim and for intervening on behalf of a woman in an abusive relationship.

Officers Daniel Vernes and Arthur Hood were given the department's Bronze Star for their actions during a confrontation with a woman who turned on them with a handgun and began yelling "I'm going to shoot you!"

In a split second, the department said, Vernes rushed the woman instead of drawing his own weapon, knocking her to the ground and wresting the weapon from her.

"People want to know, 'Is everything fixed? Is it done yet? Where's the final chapter?'" Davis said. "Well, the book is being written, the journey is being traveled. And that's going to be a process.

"Thank you all for staying here in Baltimore and being part of history."

krector@baltsun.com

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