Arrests in Baltimore plummet, and residents are fearful

Arrests in Baltimore are way down after Freddie Gray unrest even as homicides/shootings spike.

Baltimore police arrested fewer people in May than in any month for at least three years, despite a surge in homicides and shootings across the city — triggering safety concerns among residents.

Several neighborhoods saw declines of more than 90 percent from April to May, while arrests in the West Baltimore area where Freddie Gray was arrested dropped by more than half during the same period, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of police data. Citywide, arrests declined 43 percent from April to May.

"I've noticed fewer police," said Steve Dixon, program director for the Penn North Recovery Center in West Baltimore. "We're having robberies at the playground in broad daylight. All these murders and shootings, we're having them in broad daylight."

The dramatic citywide decline — which has sparked a debate about police pulling back on enforcement efforts — came in the aftermath of the death of Gray. Six officers have been charged in the death of the 25-year-old, who suffered spinal injuries while in police custody and died a week after his April 12 arrest.

City leaders and police union officials have provided explanations for the slowdown.

Officers have been hesitant to make arrests since the rioting that followed Gray's funeral, union and police department officials have said. Officers also have been surrounded by camera-wielding residents recording their every move, according to the police commissioner. And since Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby filed the criminal charges in Gray's death, many officers are afraid that they risk being charged with crimes for trying to do their jobs, union leaders say.

"If [police] are standing there being indecisive about what to do, that's going to hurt," said City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger. "It's a mess. If this trend continues, people are going to feel, even myself, unsafe."

Dixon is not convinced that police are genuinely fearful. Just angry.

"They're absolutely angry that six police officers were charged," he said.

In recent weeks, homicides and shootings have spiked. There were 42 homicides in Baltimore in May, the most in a month since 1990. And police have reported 237 shootings this year, an 84 percent jump over the comparable period last year.

Meanwhile, arrests have plummeted in neighborhoods across the city, according to The Sun's analysis of police data that is posted online. Some of the starkest declines took place in southwest neighborhoods: Only one arrest each was made in May in the Franklin Square and Mill Hill communities, a 95 percent decline over April arrests.

The impact of those statistics has hit home in and around the 1100 block of Washington Blvd., which sits in the heart of Washington Village/Pigtown. The block is a litter-strewn stretch of two-story brick and Formstone rowhouses. The street, just three blocks south of the B&O Railroad Museum, is bookended by Bob's Bar and Bella Roma Pizza on one side, and the Birdland and New City corner stores on the other.

It's also a hotspot for crime, according to people who work there and police crime data. In the past two months, the block and nearby streets have been the site of two homicides and multiple assaults, burglaries and larcenies. The most recent homicide was May 29, when Justin Mensuphu-Bey, 23, was fatally shot.

Yet total arrests in the neighborhood dropped from 21 in April to five in May — a 76 percent decline.

Seeing the slowdown

Ribyoon Pasha, who helps manage his family's Birdland Mart at West Cross Street and Washington Boulevard, said officers have always been slow to respond to his calls about drug dealing inside and outside his shop.

"Usually when they come the sale is done," Pasha said. "I don't rely on the cops. I'm my own security."

He said it took 15 to 20 minutes for police to respond to an incident on the evening of Feb. 8, when two men fought and stabbed each other in the middle of Ostend Street. Surveillance video shows one man lying in the middle of the street while the other man, holding his stomach, slowly walks away.

But the police presence has faded even further after the Gray unrest, Pasha said.

He and his fellow manager, Hassan Naveed, stood last week behind a glass-encased cashier's box in the store, speaking through the opening where money is exchanged. These days, they said, they have less confidence that the police can help.

"I think they are just scared," Pasha said. "They're not afraid of dying. They're afraid of going to jail."

Meanwhile, he said, drug dealers have become more brazen.

Dixon has seen the same impact in West Baltimore.

"The cops are not standing on the corner," Dixon said. "At North and Mount or North and Penn, you don't see any police presence."

He's not the only one to notice.

"All these criminal acts are occurring because [criminals] noticed it as well," he said. "That's their job, to know what the police are doing."

Officials with the local police union say officers — aware of the charges filed in the Gray case — are hesitant to do their jobs.

"The criminals are taking advantage of the situation in Baltimore since the unrest," Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said in a recent statement. "Criminals feel empowered now. There is no respect. Police are under siege in every quarter."

He added that "police are more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty."

Asked whether officers are afraid to do their jobs, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said last week that they have "endured a lot of trauma." He added that officers have "an ethical responsibility to this city, to the babies, to the kids, to the mothers, to the weak ones that are out there, to protect this city as a whole and keep their job going in that direction."

Police declined to discuss the issue further.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said last week that "we remain aggressive and focused in our crime fight." She noted the indictments of 14 members of the Black Guerrilla Family gang as proof that police are keeping up the pressure on criminals.

Edward C. Jackson, a retired Baltimore police colonel who teaches at Baltimore City Community College, said part of the slowdown in arrests is driven by the "worst fear" all officers share.

"Cops are more afraid of being disgraced than being killed in the line of duty," he said. "That's a fate worse than death for many police officers."

Police are not "slowing down on purpose," Jackson added. Given that their jobs require them to confront dangerous people, police are now being cautious rather than risking getting charged and having their mug shots spread across the nation.

"No one wants to go out like that," he said.

The result, he said, is the spike in violence as criminals take advantage of the slowdown "to settle old scores."

Gradual decline

Over the past two years, arrests have been in a gradual decline across Baltimore, The Sun's analysis shows. In 2013, there were 3,522 arrests per month, and in 2014, 3,302 arrests per month. From January to April this year — even before the big drop in May — there were 2,641 arrests per month.

Some Baltimoreans say that trend could have a silver lining.

Alvin Eddins, owner of Tasty Creations Bakery on Washington Boulevard, said residents have "lost all respect for the police" because of harassment. If police want respect from the community, they need to first respect residents, he added.

"They harass us all of our lives," said Eddins, who grew up poor in the Park Heights area. "We're used to being harassed."

Eddins has owned his bakery for five years and has seen the Washington Village/Pigtown neighborhood improve between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Cross Street. Police have helped with that transformation, he said. A slowdown in arrests, he added, was only natural after the unrest.

"I believe it's because they're human beings just like us," Eddins said. "They have to go home to their families at the end of the day, just like all of us do. I would be scared, too, and I don't blame them."

Fewer overall arrests could also mean fewer bad arrests, and fewer young black men getting a criminal record, he added.

The drop in arrests is "a good thing and it's a bad thing. If [police are] not out there doing their jobs, there's going to be more violence. The upside of it is that it could be fewer people are being harassed."

Leigh Maddox, a retired Maryland State Police captain who teaches law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, agreed.

"I don't think police arresting fewer people is a bad thing," said Maddox, a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which opposes the war on drugs. "Maybe police will chill out a little bit in these neighborhoods and give people a chance to breathe."

She said the May decline in arrests could be partly attributed to a disruption to the drug trade caused by the unrest. Fewer customers from outside the city were willing to come into Baltimore, given the increased presence of the police and the National Guard, as well as the citywide curfew.

Police should take this time to formulate new training for engaging with the community, Maddox said, rather than returning to the same aggressive, paramilitary techniques. "They scream at the community because that's how they were trained," she said.

Still, said Southwest Baltimore resident Tonya Smith, police need to do more than just drive around. Since the unrest, she said, officers have stopped getting out of their cars to patrol the area.

"Yesterday was the first time I saw them walking in my neighborhood," Smith said Thursday at the Dominican Beauty Salon on Washington Boulevard. Meanwhile, she added, crime has only gotten worse. A stray bullet from a shooting struck the house next door to hers just last week, she said.

Dhrumil Patel, who has owned the Shop N Go convenience store in Pigtown for years, has noticed a drop-off in policing since the officers were charged in the Gray case.

Someone smashed the large windows on the store's front door on a recent night. He called 911, and police took nearly a half-hour to respond, he said. Patel told them he suspected a local man whom he had recently caught shoplifting. The officers looked at the security footage, decided they could not distinguish an identity and told Patel to call again if the man returned, he said.

"I show you all the proof I have: This is the person. This is his name. This is where he lives," Patel said. "Police aren't doing anything about it."

As Patel closed the store and left to go home, he saw the man walking nearby.

"I identified him that night," he said. "I saw him, I followed him in my car and I called the police. No one showed up."

Police did not respond to a request for comment on the incident.

Patel said he's even more frustrated because he donates money to the Police Department each year and regularly gives officers free sodas when they pass through the store, at Scott Street and Washington Boulevard.

Garland Simon, 58, nodded as he snacked on a pack of peanut butter cracker sandwiches just inside the front door. As Patel walked behind the counter to ring up a pack of cigarettes, Simon recalled discussing the city's increased homicide rate with an officer patrolling the street the other day.

He said the officer told him: "You can blame your mayor, you can blame your state's attorney."

Simon said he was appalled, and cut off the officer mid-rant. Simon said he understands why officers are upset by the charges Mosby filed in the Gray case, "but you've got a job to do."

He compared it to a basketball game: "If the ref gives you a bad call, you're going to quit?"

ddonovan@baltsun.com

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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