A federal judge overseeing Baltimore Police’s reform efforts called officers Sunday and reported that a pair of squeegee workers gave him the middle finger, spat on his car and wrote “racist” in suds on the windows.
No property was damaged, no one was injured and neither squeegee worker was charged in the incident, according to a police report. But U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar’s run-in with squeegee workers, and the ensuing police response, has renewed focus on squeegeeing and raised questions about the necessity of having law enforcement respond to certain situations.
“The fact of the matter is not every challenge should be met with policing and prosecution,” said Dave Jaros, who heads the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
Bredar and his wife were stopped Sunday afternoon at the intersection of North Avenue and Mount Royal Terrace when two squeegee workers approached their SUV and offered to clean the windshields, according to a police report. Bredar and his wife refused them, and the pair became hostile, with one of them giving the middle finger to Bredar’s wife, the report said.
Bredar, who was a passenger in the SUV, took a photo of that man, age 20, who then proceeded to spit on the car, the judge later told police. Bredar, who is white, reported that the other worker used his squeegee to spell out the word “racist” on the SUV windows.
After the couple drove off, Bredar called Baltimore Police, asking the department to send officers to the intersection. Once there, the worker who apparently gave the middle finger spoke with officers who gave him a warning and told him to stop squeegeeing at that intersection.
Only one of the workers was named in the police report.
Neither Bredar nor the named worker returned calls and texts seeking interviews. A spokesperson for the U.S. District Court in Maryland confirmed that Bredar called the police but offered no comments. The Baltimore Banner, an online news site, originally reported the interaction.
After this summer’s fatal shooting at an intersection in the Inner Harbor reignited the debate about whether squeegeeing should be allowed, Baltimore State’s Attorney-to-be Ivan Bates said he would have police get the workers off the intersections and into court-ordered diversionary programs meant to connect them with social services and vocational training. Activists feared Bates’ plan marked the possible return to a “clear the corners” style of enforcement that plagued Baltimore for years, culminating in the police department having to reach a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice because of its unconstitutional policing of poor, Black neighborhoods.
Bredar, who presides over enforcement of the decree, addressed squeegeeing in the context of the decree in August, saying it did not prohibit “vigorous enforcement” meant to curtail such workers.
“Generally speaking, city leaders will decide whether enforcement action should be taken with respect to the squeegee issue,” he said, adding that “the terms of the consent decree will regulate how that enforcement action is carried out.”
While Bredar didn’t weigh in directly on what he thought the city should be doing about squeegee workers, his decision to call police Sunday indicates he thinks law enforcement should play a role, activists said.
“The judge has clearly shown that he is not a neutral party and believes that the solution to the challenges our city faces are solved by calling the police on Black men and boys — the key issue that forced the consent decree to exist,” said DeRay Mckesson, founder of the nonprofit Campaign Zero, which works to eliminate police violence.
Mckesson called for Bredar to be removed from oversight of the consent decree, saying he “no longer has legitimacy.”
Mayor Brandon Scott earlier this summer formed the “squeegee collaborative,” a group of local business, nonprofit and youth leaders and elected officials who are working to develop solutions to the squeegee issue. The group has met several times and will announce its strategy “in the coming weeks,” said Monica Lewis, a spokeswoman for Scott.
“Any enforcement strategy must strike a balance between the rights of all individuals soliciting and the government’s interest in public safety,” Lewis said Tuesday.
The Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 this week pointed to the incident involving Bredar as another example of city residents feeling unsafe.
“Judge Bredar, why do you travel through that intersection? You should go around it like most of us do every day. Glad you and your wife were unhurt,” the FOP posted on Twitter.
Sgt. Mike Mancuso, the union president, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Leaders of the police officers union have complained that the department’s leadership is focused on the consent decree and not enough on reducing crime, and that officers feel discouraged from engaging in proactive policing measures.
A mainstay of major city intersections for decades, Baltimore’s squeegee workers are typically young, Black individuals experiencing severe poverty. Many see it as the best way to provide for their basic needs.
The squeegee debate reached a fever pitch this summer when Timothy Reynolds, a white, 48-year-old resident of Hampden in North Baltimore, got out of his car with a bat and confronted a group of Black workers at the Inner Harbor intersection of Light and Conway streets. The altercation ended with one of the workers shooting and killing Reynolds. One of the workers, who turned 15 the next day, is charged with first-degree murder; his attorneys have said he acted in self-defense.
Many drivers and downtown business owners consider the workers a nuisance and a handful have described fearful interactions resulting in vehicle damage or being tricked out of thousands of dollars. But such negative interactions are the minority, with thousands of drivers passing each day without incident.
Defense attorney Warren Brown, who is representing the teenager charged with murder in Reynolds’ death in July, said he understands how the workers’ presence can make many motorists, especially white ones, feel nervous, especially when they’re aggressively seeking tips.
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“People understandably feel hostage when caught at the light and are swarmed by squeegee kids,” he said. “They’d probably feel less threatened if these kids were dressed in their blue blazers and striped ties.”
Brown, who is Black, said he sometimes avoids squeegee intersections because constantly tipping can be a hassle. However, he said he is disheartened when he is out in Baltimore County, where he lives, and hears people say part of the reason they avoid coming into the city is the workers.
“They view squeegeeing as an extension of crime,” Brown said.
Jaros, the law professor, said he understands why people might be inclined to call police when confronted by workers in a tense situation, but using police to address quality-of-life issues has failed across the country and actively contributes to the mass incarceration of poor people and people of color.
“We need to have the humility to recognize the criminal justice system is a blunt tool and its use can be counterproductive,” Jaros said.
Bredar himself said in April 2021 that people have “unrealistically expected” police to provide almost every essential social service that residents require, while also acknowledging a better alternative is not in place.
“The consent decree recognizes that it is inappropriate for the police department to try to function as an uber-social services agency, and the city is required to reconsider how it meets critical needs, especially in the area of behavioral health,” he said then.