On patrol in Baltimore: 'There would be a lot less order if we weren't around'

Baltimore Police Officer Lakea Lee had just pulled out of the Eastern District station to start her shift when the radio crackled with her first call. It was a simple crash between a cab and a van on North Avenue. Still, Lee had to take statements, bundle the cab driver into an ambulance and get the two vehicles towed away.

When a few bystanders and the van driver began arguing over the tow truck, Lee called for backup.

That meant on a night when there were just 14 officers to patrol the city’s deadliest district, four were tied up by a nonfatal crash.

“Per usual,” a frustrated Lee said.

Nationally, Baltimore might be known as much for its gruesome crime rate as for its crab cakes, and for good reason. So far this year, more than 270 people have been killed in the city, a record pace.

But away from the headlines and homicides, policing is as much about helping people as handcuffing them. Often, it is a time- and labor-intensive job managing domestic disputes and private mini-dramas as much as it is responding to or working to prevent carjackings, robberies and shootings. And the former often takes resources away from the latter.

The Baltimore Sun joined Lee on two recent shifts in the Eastern District. The Sun requested the ride-along in January, after the police union said understaffing had brought the department to a “tipping point.”

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has said the department is 500 officers short of what it needs to cover the city, and Mayor Catherine Pugh has accepted the argument that the agency, budgeted at about a half a billion dollars a year, is understaffed. They’ve both said they are working to bring more officers onto the force. Davis said there are currently 180 trainees in the department’s academy.

Patrol shifts continue to go out without a full cohort of officers, even as officers are routinely drafted into working overtime.

Lee, a 5-foot-2, 29-year-old black woman from West Baltimore with five years on the force, sometimes wonders what people would think if police were absent for a day, and unavailable to respond to the run-of-the-mill calls that make up the bulk of their work.

“There would be a lot less order if we weren’t around,” she said.

Lee, who grew up off Edmondson Avenue on the city’s west side, thought at one time of becoming a nurse. Her mother suggested her no-nonsense, assertive manner might not be compassionate enough for a health care job. Lee, who has a 9-year-old daughter, realized that policing put her in a setting in which she could have a tough exterior and still help people.

“Cop work is similar to customer service,” she said. “You have to have a helping spirit, an ‘I can fix it,’ can-do mentality.”

During two recent shifts, Lee worked steadily through calls as they came over the radio back-to-back-to-back. She hopped out at a convenience store, causing a corner full of men to quickly disperse; advised a woman about a custody dispute she was having with the father of her child; took a report of a rental car stolen by a kid in a school uniform; broke up a dice game at a basketball court; talked to an elderly woman who had called the police on a tenant; searched unsuccessfully for a gun that a tipster said had been left in a back yard; and walked a stretch of Greenmount Avenue, where a store owner complained that the police are trying to shut him down.

“We have to come here a lot,” Lee responded.

Police work in Baltimore is under more scrutiny than ever. There was the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody, and the U.S. Justice Department investigation that found systemic unconstitutional and discriminatory policing, particularly against the city’s poor black communities. The city is now working with the Justice Department to reform policing under a court-enforced consent decree.

When Lee first became an officer five years ago, she says, some in her family were unhappy. Her mother, Lenora Lee, says she shut those family members down. But she was so worried about her daughter’s safety that, for a while, she couldn’t sleep while Lee was on duty.

“I was tired for months,” the mother said.

Lakea Lee, a Seton Keough High School graduate who earned a master’s degree in criminal justice administration at Coppin State University, wishes people didn’t have so many preconceived notions about cops in Baltimore. Often, she said, they’re wrong.

“There’s a lot of us who are from the city and understand the culture and what makes people feel the way they feel,” she said.

The police department is charged with reform at the same time it is trying to quell historic violence — and the patrol division is caught in the middle.

Brandon Scott, the chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee, said he wants police to make better use of an online reporting tool for minor crimes, which he said could free up officers to patrol.

“The truth is that patrol officers don't typically have time to be proactive because they're going from call to call to call,” Scott said. “We have to be more efficient with the resources that we have.”

Davis has said the department already encourages such reporting through its smartphone app. He said the strain on staffing is “much larger” than such measures could possibly address, and he is hopeful a staffing study mandated by the consent decree will help outline a more permanent solution.

Chief Osborne Robinson, head of the department’s patrol division, said patrolling Baltimore takes many forms, in part because every district has its own unique problems and demographics. A big part of the job of patrol officers is responding to calls for service, he said, but they also participate in targeted initiatives — such as checking on people with open warrants, posting up in problem areas, or working with parole and probation agents to conduct home visits.

In the Southeastern District, for example, there’s a major focus on robberies, which have surged there. In the historically trigger-happy Western District, much time is spent checking in on people with past gun offenses. Regardless of the district, areas that have seen gun violence are given extra attention, and times when there are fewer calls for service — such as the mornings — are used to conduct special enforcement efforts.

“We go out with a plan,” Robinson said. “We go out with a mission based on the larger strategic plan. And the district commanders narrow the scope based on what is happening in their particular district.”

Sometimes, though, patrolling just means responding from call to call to call, Robinson said. Sometimes, police can’t help but be reactive.

“Like Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,’” Robinson said. “You have to roll with the punches. You take the bitter with the sweet, and you have to make adjustments on the fly.”

Lee responds to violent crime scenes. The Eastern District, which includes Johns Hopkins Hospital and most of the economically downtrodden neighborhoods that surround it, is leading the city in homicides this year with at least 44. Lee’s post, around the Oliver neighborhood, has seen about eight of them.

But many nights, such as those when The Sun was present, she moves around the city helping people with comparatively minor problems.

On the night Lee worked foot patrol on Greenmount Avenue, she got a call about a possible assault in progress. She jumped into her car and sped off. Turning a corner, she saw a man leaning over a woman, who was on the sidewalk, crouched against a fence.

The woman was crying, and pregnant, and said the man had assaulted her. Lee separated the couple and sat the man on the curb. The man argued, and Lee listened. After another officer arrived, Lee talked to the woman privately in the ambulance, then decided to file charges against the man.

A fan of the TV drama “Law and Order: SVU,” Lee favors Det. Olivia Benson. Like the television character, Lee says, she’s been able to get some female crime victims to open up. She hopes to work her way up to being a sex crimes detective.

But she also says people sometimes try to push female officers, thinking that they might go easier on them. And Lee doesn’t want to seem like a pushover.

“Giving people too much leeway can cause issues,” she said. “Straightforward is correct.”

On one recent shift, Lee was called to a rowhome next to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Police had arrested two men who lived there with a gun and a large amount of marijuana. Now they had a search warrant. The raid team was already inside, reading a group of handcuffed women their rights.

Lee — one of the few female officers on duty that night in the district — was tasked with searching the women.

Emotions were raw.

A little boy, his eyes wide, asked if his mother was going to jail. One of the women lamented that her plans for a big fish fry that night were out the window. Another woman leaned over her knees, her face in her hands.

“It’s like no matter what, the devil always finds me,” she said.

Lee, poker-faced, calmly took the women into the home’s kitchen and searched them one by one. She found a small amount of pot in one purse, and alerted her supervisor. She chaperoned another woman to the bathroom.

Then Lee looked around and asked a supervisor if she could be on her way.

Getting the nod, she headed back into the cool night and on to the next call.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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