In Baltimore, police face pressure to halt violence and heated scrutiny of arrests

In the middle of an East Baltimore street, three police officers struggled to subdue an alleged drug dealer as a gathering crowd screamed objections and recorded the officers’ every move.

A video of the incident last week quickly racked up tens of thousands of views on Facebook. The footage shows an officer pushing the man’s chest onto the pavement and placing a knee on his lower back.

Forty-seven-year-old Curtis Myers twists his body in protest.

“Yo, get off my stomach,” Myers says, and the crowd erupts: “Get off his stomach!” “He can’t breathe!”

By the time the confrontation was over, one officer had a dislocated shoulder and two men were arrested — Myers on charges of illegal drug possession and resisting arrest, and a second man, Martez Buckner, 29, on charges of obstruction and hindering and resisting arrest.

Some witnesses at the scene and commenters on Facebook saw police harassment of citizens in the video. Others saw citizen harassment of police. The Police Department says a review of the video and officer body-camera footage determined the officers acted appropriately in the face of an aggressive crowd.

The department also says the incident captured in the video, while alarming, isn’t particularly surprising. Officials say it reflects the daily reality for officers responding to crime in the city.

“It shows you how quickly a scene can turn chaotic,” said T.J. Smith, the department’s chief spokesman. “They simply try to arrest those who are dealing drugs, and they have to deal with a hostile environment as a result.”

Smith said officers were on foot patrol in the city’s Broadway East neighborhood about 1 p.m. Aug. 9 when they observed a drug deal underway. Myers, the man allegedly dealing the drugs, fled into a vacant building, Smith said, and the officers gave chase. Myers jumped out a second-story window, Smith said, and climbed into a van.

At some point during Myers’ arrest, Smith said, Buckner came to the scene and attempted to stop the officers from conducting their investigation. He was then arrested as well — which ratcheted up tensions among the gathered crowd.

“He didn’t do nothing!” one woman screamed.

“Everybody video!” urged another.

The officers dropped a citywide Signal 13, a request for immediate backup. At one point, the officer with his knee on Myers’ back pulled out his Taser — but didn’t deploy it — as he swiveled his head around, trying to keep an eye on those crowding around him.

Myers was taken to an area hospital for minor abrasions from jumping out the window, Smith said. Myers, who was on probation for a May drug charge, and Buckner were released on their own recognizance after their arrests. They could not be reached for comment.

The officer who dislocated his shoulder was also transported to a local hospital, Smith said.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the local police union, said he watched the video alongside top brass at police headquarters, and believes it shows more than a few bystanders threatening the officers.

“It was outrageous. It was appalling. How can you effectively police in a city that has no respect for authority?” Ryan asked. “They just totally disrespected the police officers. They invaded their personal space when the officers were attempting to do the job they are sworn to do.”

Some on the scene disagreed. Buckner’s father, who observed his son’s arrest and called it unjustified, said police provoked the uproar.

“The police is not lawfully doing the job the way they should,” said Clarence Buckner Sr., 61. “They take the law into their own hands and treat people the way they want to treat them.”

Clarence Buckner said it was his van that Myers jumped into, and his son — who in the summertime sells cold drinks out of coolers in the van — had simply tried to close the van doors when the officers rushed him and began elbowing and shoving him.

He said police then had his van towed away, even though he told them they could search it on the scene.

“My son Martez, all he did was walk over by my van and shut the door, and the police started locking him up,” he said. “They shouldn’t have messed with my son. … My son was protecting my property.”

Though crowds forming around arrests is as old as policing itself, and citizens filming at city crime scenes has become commonplace, the actions of police officers in Baltimore have come under increasing scrutiny after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015 and a subsequent U.S. Department of Justice report that found a pattern of unconstitutional policing in Baltimore.

The city is suffering record levels of violence this year. Two hundred and twenty people were killed through Wednesday.

Some officers say they feel they are under a microscope as never before, to be condemned if they use force regardless of whether they are in danger themselves.

“Yes, they’re hesitant,” said Ryan, the union president. “They don’t want to be that officer charged for doing their job properly and going to jail.”

Ryan traces that hesitance to the decision of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby to charge six police officers in Gray’s arrest and death — all of whom were either acquitted or had their charges dropped.

“I call it the ‘Mosby effect,’” he said. “She totally ruined policing.”

Ryan said the union and its members support reforms, but do not want to cede the city to people who “want to take over the streets and try to intimidate the police officers.” He also said patrols are understaffed — a point on which city officials agree.

Mosby did not respond to Ryan’s criticisms directly, and said she could not comment on Myers’ and Buckner’s cases. But she said in a statement the video “illustrates the difficult job that police officers face throughout our country, not just here in Baltimore.”

Mosby said her office and the Police Department are “working hard every day to strengthen our partnerships in the community in order to successfully prosecute cases,” and “refuse to allow divisiveness to derail our efforts to make Baltimore safer.”

Former Baltimore police officer Peter Moskos, now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the video showed a routine incident in a city where big crowds have long treated street arrests as public spectacles.

“This is what happens,” he said. “It is sort of normal.”

What might have changed since he was patrolling the east side in 2001, he said, is that back then, police officers likely would have used more force to take Buckner to the ground as he resisted arrest.

Smith said police officers are out doing their jobs every day, and the vast majority of Baltimoreans support those efforts.

“The people hooting and hollering and acting like that aren’t representative of the city as a whole. We’re not prepared to believe that,” Smith said. “The people who want police to take drug dealers off the street aren’t videotaping it and aren’t yelling at police.”

Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, the former Baltimore NAACP leader, said police must be held to the Constitution.

The longtime West Baltimore man was party to a landmark ACLU lawsuit a decade ago that reined in mass arrests for minor offenses under then-Mayor Martin O’Malley.

But he now believes police are doing too little.

Cheatham said he can name 20 open-air drug markets in his Matthew A. Henson neighborhood, including one on a short stretch of Ruxton Avenue where four men have been killed this year, and where addicts “are able to buy drugs without even getting out of their car.”

“The problem is the police are taking a knee on open-air drug markets,” Cheatham said. “All they are doing is driving by. They don’t talk to the guys and say, ‘You can’t do this.’ They don’t stop them.”

Cheatham said he hears officers blaming the lack of proactive policing in West Baltimore on the consent decree and the restrictions they believe it has placed on enforcement tactics such as clearing corners. But he said he isn’t buying it.

“This has nothing to do with the consent decree,” he said. “They’re giving us excuses when they aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing.”

krector@baltsun.com

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