He should know. He’s led the NAACP and sued the city over zero-tolerance policing. He’s opened a package of boric acid mailed to him as a threat. At 70 years old, he fought decades for racial justice only to watch the criminal cases fall apart against six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
“If we can’t do it now, it will never get done,” Cheatham said.
What should change look like?
There are universities, thinktanks and advocacy groups working on that question. Some 80 people spoke at a public hearing Wednesday, condemning Mayor Brandon Scott’s plan to spend $28 million more on police next year. Many of them want to see the department’s budget — a proposed $555 million — cut, not grown. That money, they say, is put to better use on social services.
Opinions vary on the future of policing in Baltimore. Some believe the department riddled by scandal is too far gone and should be defunded or even disbanded. Others think the force should be bolstered with more officers, money and better training. Beliefs fall along divides of politics, wealth and race, indeed, but also age and ZIP code.
In West Baltimore, which suffered 50 to 60 homicides in each of the past five years, Cheatham doesn’t agree that the police department should have less money. Rather, he wants to see money and officers moved from safer neighborhoods in the north and southeast to more dangerous neighborhoods in the east and west.
“Manpower should be where the crime and violence is,” he said.
He’s hardly alone there. Spend an afternoon walking around Cheatham’s neighborhood and talking to people at bus stops and barbershops, the feelings are echoed. Families don’t want to see the police go away, but be more present: walking beats, checking in, living next door. They want officers to be like them, not white outsiders who drive in from the suburbs and southern Pennsylvania. The 2016 Department of Justice investigation found 75% of officers live outside the city. Around here, folks want to be policed by their own.
“When we were coming up, the police were friendly. You knew them, man,” Antonio Williams said.
The 63-year-old waited for a bus at North Bentalou and Winchester streets in Bridgeview-Greenlawn. Too many officers live out of town, he said. They see Black people in West Baltimore as different from themselves and therefore treat citizens without familiarity and compassion. To Williams, it’s simple: prejudice.
“They should approach me and talk to me. All that force, all that adrenaline and rah-rah, it’s not necessary, man,” he said.
He holds up his right hand to show his pinkie finger. Broken, he said, during a drug arrest in his 30s.
“Still crooked,” Williams said. “The sergeant came around and hit me on the head with the radio.”
He never reported the officers.
“No, I was chasing drugs at the time. With the insanity of the drugs, I just chalked it up,” he said.
Plenty of people have stories about the cops. Outside the One + One Carry-Out on North Monroe Street, Williams Spears shared his.
Sure, he had cocaine and marijuana in his car when the cops pulled him over, said Spears, 53. But the officers didn’t have to take him into the alley.
“They stripped me. Hit me. That’s humiliating,” he said.
He pleaded guilty to drug possession in 2010 and got probation. One of the officers, Daniel Hersl of the rogue Gun Trace Task Force, is serving 18 years in federal prison for racketeering crimes of overtime fraud and robbery.
Beverly Jordan won’t forget the time she was on the corner with girlfriends about five years ago and an officer demanded their driver’s licenses. They didn’t have them. She said the cop offered to let them go in exchange for sex acts. They refused to comply.
“We didn’t report it, but we should have,” she said.
There’s no way to confirm her account with the department. But Jordan still wants to see police in the streets of West Baltimore, particularly at corners known for drugs and crime. She just wants them to show respect and restraint.
“I want to see them at Penn-North,” she said. “They [people] do all kinds of crime right there in front of the police officers.”
Meanwhile, others across Baltimore hope to see money taken from the department and put to affordable housing and addiction treatment. Calls to defund the police became louder and more numerous after Floyd’s death last year.
The mayor himself has called for such reforms in the past. His plan to increase the police budget now — largely to address health insurance and pension costs — hasn’t gone over smoothly. At a meeting this week, residents instead called for a $100 million cut to the budget. Advocates accuse Scott of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods.
Perceptions vary after tense encounters with police. The stories of interactions are told over and over in West Baltimore, shading views of younger generations. Some remember a chance meeting with a kind and helpful cop; others recall cops who seemed trigger-happy, just raring for a chance to fight.
Carver Vocational-Technical High School senior Shawn Blackwell remembered riding in the car with his mom and panicking when he saw police lights flash behind them. They pulled over. An officer walked up, a white man.
“I’ve seen how other people get shot reaching for their license,” the 19-year-old said.
The officer, however, was polite and friendly. He warned them for speeding and let them go. Blackwell was surprised. “He was super cool.”
Weeks later, however, another encounter crumbled his trust. Blackwell said his teenage cousin fought a man in the street and an officer pulled a gun to break up the two. Blackwell was shaken. He doesn’t believe police would draw guns to break up a fight among white high school students.
“I just want them to treat us as equals,” Blackwell said. “That was the scariest day of my life.”
In the Friend or Foe Hair Studio, barber Damon Fisher said he recognized the look on the face of the Minneapolis officer who knelt, hands in pockets, on the neck of George Floyd. Fisher saw arrogance.
“It’s like, I’m the boss and I got a gun,” he said. “You have to have compassion. I’m not saying be a fool.”
He’s owned a barbershop and beauty salon in West Baltimore for 30 years. He remembers that same arrogance in the face of an officer who cleared the corner and threatened to lock him up for sitting outside his salon.
Like the others, he believes police should come from the neighborhood, walk the beat and know the people. After all, everyone else here knows who’s good and who’s trouble. Fisher, for one, has hope. Hate is taught not born, he said. The groundswell for change in this moment might break the cycle.
Outside, Ashawnte Colston hurries past on her way. She has two teenagers at home and worries over them. She worries over all the neighborhood children.
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