It’s been eight years since 25-year-old Freddie Gray died from injuries suffered in police custody, followed by days of protests and unrest on Baltimore’s streets. Those April 2015 events cast a harsh light on long-standing complaints of racial injustice, police brutality and lack of services for the city’s underserved communities.
Gray died from a severe spinal cord injury a week after Baltimore Police arrested him. Officers put Gray, who was handcuffed and shackled but not secured with a seat belt, into the back of a transport van where a medical investigation later found he was injured. He was charged with possession of a pocket knife that officers found while searching him.
Mostly peaceful protests followed in the days after Gray’s death. But on April 27, 2015, the day of his funeral, police and protesters clashed near Mondawmin Mall with unrest spreading throughout the city. Those tense days prompted promises of reform from officials and institutions. It also led to several Baltimore residents forming initiatives to serve historically neglected communities.
“Freddie Gray’s tragic death was a turning point for not just those who knew him personally, but all of Baltimore as well,” Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said in a statement last week. “Honoring his memory means continuing the fight for justice and accountability so what happened to him — and far too many others — never happens to anyone else.”
Though the spring of 2015 is crystallized in the memory of many Baltimore residents, Gray’s legacy and the national movement it helped fuel have faded from daily conversations. While problems stemming from Baltimore’s history of systemic racism persist, some organizations have launched and institutions reformed to address the issues raised by the unrest and the resulting discussions.
Black-led community initiatives
City leaders’ reaction to Gray’s death and the subsequent unrest were landmark moments for Black communities, said Dayvon Love, director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore grassroots think tank and advocacy organization. Communities historically overlooked by formal institutions set out to create their own organizations that focus on Black health care, nutrition, education and safety, which continue to thrive.
“The uprising was definitive proof that we need to create our own systems that Black people control and Black people produce,” Love said.
The prevalence of negative media coverage around food insecurity in Baltimore after Gray’s death contributed to a web of churches establishing a neighborhood food market called the Black Church Food Security Network, Love said. The self-sustaining model involves churches growing their own vegetables and acting as hubs that distribute produce grown by Black farmers. The Rev. Heber Brown III, who established the network during the unrest of 2015 at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, has been nationally recognized for his work, and the model has been mirrored in other states.
Bloom Collective, a Black-led maternal health organization, started from a grassroots coalition formed after Gray’s death. In a state where non-Hispanic Black women are twice as likely as white women to have severe health outcomes from giving birth, Bloom Collective supports Black parents and babies in the Baltimore region. The group consists of wellness practitioners, including midwives and psychotherapists.
Narratives of Baltimore that focus only on crime, violence and poverty often overlook and minimize the incredible work that is happening, Love said.
Mondawmin Mall redevelopment
On the day of Gray’s funeral, unrest mixed with confusion led to looting and damage starting at Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore. It extended into Penn North and down into Mount Vernon.
More than 380 businesses were damaged or destroyed, with property losses estimated at $13 million. Last year, city officials approved a $3.5 million settlement with 68 current and former business owners whose properties were damaged.
But redevelopment has begun at the site. Planet Fitness moved into the former Marshalls space. And the former Target is slated to become a community hub following a multimillion-dollar investment by the CEO of construction giant Whiting-Turner Contracting.
Work has begun on the $25 million development, which will be called The Village at Mondawmin. It’s set to include a health center serving older residents, a home for nonprofit organizations, as well as services for child care and job development, and local food and retail vendors. The first tenants are expected to move in toward the end of this year and early 2024.
Baltimore Police consent decree
A federal investigation spurred by Gray’s death detailed widespread discrimination, unconstitutional treatment and other abuses by police toward the city’s Black residents in low-income neighborhoods. The Baltimore Police Department entered a federal consent decree two years later that mandated sweeping reforms.
Six years later, the department still is working to comply with the consent decree, but is seeing encouraging change, according to the federal judge who oversees the decree. In a quarterly public hearing this month, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar described the department as “a different agency now.” Improvements include revised policies, updated trainings, a new police academy and the overhaul of the agency’s internal affairs unit.
There’s been other progress around upholding protesters’ rights, police shootings, uses of force and innovative training, including EPIC, or Ethical Policing is Courageous, which teaches officers to intervene in problematic officer actions.
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The department remains short-staffed, Bredar said, and needs to repair a deep relationship rift with the public.
Gray’s death reverberated across Baltimore and the country at a time of national debate over the deaths of young black men at the hands of police, an enduring issue. And a 2021 report detailed Baltimore Police officers’ poor treatment of shooting victims and their families, who reported being treated like suspects by officers instead of supported. Mayor Brandon Scott and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the city is working on applying the many recommendations offered in the report.
Maryland police accountability legislation
National and local protests for police reform had significant results in Maryland, where the General Assembly approved a slate of laws in 2021 called the Maryland Police Accountability Act. The long-debated changes were energized by the national outrage following the murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, and touted by state lawmakers as the most consequential law enforcement reforms in a half-century. Efforts to improve accountability and transparency continue.
Included in the 2021 package is a mandate to put body cameras on every police officer by 2025, but some county-level agencies, such as Baltimore and Howard counties, have yet to fulfill the requirement. A bill that will help local law enforcement agencies afford body cameras and video storage is on Moore’s desk to sign into law.
A bill that would give the Maryland Office of the Attorney General authority to prosecute police for unjustly killing or seriously injuring civilians also awaits Moore’s signature. The office’s Independent Investigation Division, which has investigated all deadly police encounters since it was created by the 2021 Accountability Act, previously did not recommend criminal charges. That decision was up to the local state’s attorneys. None of the cases investigated by the attorney general’s office since it was granted that power have been prosecuted.
The Police Accountability Act also established a new disciplinary process for officers that includes input from civilian-majority boards. Each of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions had to pass its own regulations to create an accountability board.