Western District Police Station, unveiled its $2.4 million renovated building that was done with private funding. (Baltimore Sun video)
During the 2015 unrest in Baltimore, the Western District police station was the setting of multiple clashes between protesters and police officers. After the worst of the rioting, the station was blocked off from the community by barricades and watched over by National Guard troops.
Today, the Western District is a very different place. A garden with community seating, where residents can access free Wi-Fi, stretches across the front of the building. Words such as "trust" and "rebirth" are carved into the cement walkway. There's a room at the front of the building for community events, and a state-of-the-art gym and locker room facilities at the back for the district's officers.
The steps out front now carry a Thurgood Marshall quote: "In recognizing the humanity in our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute."
The changes are part of a $4.5 million renovation of the building unveiled Wednesday by city officials, top police brass, community leaders, and the nonprofit and business leaders who made the work possible through a public-private partnership.
Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh, said the city had allocated $1.47 million toward the project. Some of that funding has yet to be spent and will be used for new roofing and a new heating and cooling system. He said the rest came from private donations.
Former Under Armour executive Scott Plank, whose War Horse Cities development company led the project and whose family foundation was a major donor, said his goal was to leverage his and other local business and nonprofit leaders' expertise to enhance the physical home of the police force in West Baltimore.
Plank said his intention was to help officers move from "warriors to guardians" by enhancing their work environment, improving their own well-being and health, and providing them with more tools to engage the community. It was also to draw residents into the police station as a positive hub of community activity, he said.
"We don't know much about being a police officer, other than frankly what I know about TV or the movies. And I've certainly not lived in West Baltimore," Plank said. "But we know a lot about bringing people to a place."
The Western District, which covers about 3 square miles, is one of the city's most violent areas. There have been 27 homicides in the district this year, out of 184 citywide. There were 60 homicides in the district in 2016, the most of any district.
Maj. Sheree Briscoe, the Western's commander, said Plank and the other donors did an "outstanding job" on the renovations.
"Prior to now, this wasn't a welcoming experience," she said of the station.
Officer Luke Shelley, a patrol officer in the Western District, said he appreciates the renovations, too — particularly the gym.
"Exercise I think is the best anti-depressant in the world," Shelley said, noting the "high volume of stress" that comes with police work in the city. "I'm glad for all the support."
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the public-private partnership will "stand as an example to the rest of the country."
The project was announced in May 2016, about a year after the unrest, as a way to improve the relationship between police and the community in West Baltimore, which had been exposed as raw and badly damaged by the unrest that followed the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who was found unconscious at the Western District station with fatal neck injuries suffered while in police custody in April 2015.
The building, a squat two-story facility in the 1000 block of Mount St. in Sandtown-Winchester, was built in 1958. In addition to the new exterior, community room and gym and lockers for officers, the renovations include new holding cells and interview rooms, a collaborative workspace for multiple law enforcement agencies, updated technology and a 24-hour lobby with security glass for front desk officers.
Interior spaces evoke the Under Armour aesthetic many in Baltimore are familiar with from the local apparel giant's stores, headquarters, advertisements and overall branding: bold lettering, catchy phrases, inspirational quotes. Along one wall near the officers' lockers, images of Ray Lewis and Cal Ripken Jr. line the walls. Briscoe said she's going to get some images of inspirational sports women as well.
Briscoe said about 50 community members collaborated to guide the renovations, to ensure they included things the community wanted.
Several community members who were involved in the process and present during the unveiling Wednesday said the final product was better than they'd imagined.
Frances Muldrow, 63, a longtime activist who has spent all her life in Sandtown and lives across the street from the station, said she was impressed and happy with the changes, even though the construction on the building kept her up at times in the past year.
"I didn't know it was going to be this extensive," she said. "Hopefully, now that this is a first-rate station, maybe the officers take pride in it — and in the community."
She said she's heard some complaints from community members about so much money being spent on the police, and not directly on the community, but she said private benefactors can spend money on whatever they want — and the changes to the station will benefit the community.
Marsha Bannerman, 67, who has lived on the same block as the station her entire life, said she has good memories of interacting with officers and using the space around the police station growing up, and hopes to have more such experiences in the coming years.
"I'm just so pleased, and I encourage the community to come and sit at the reflection garden," she said. "It's such a wonderful thing. I never thought I would see the day where I would see the Western District go through this transformation."
Inez Robb, the Western District Community Relations Council president, said she and other community leaders "see a new beginning, we see a transformation" occurring in the new station and in the Western District more generally, particularly since the 2015 unrest.
"We see more people interacting, engaging with one another, talking to one another, being concerned," she said. "This is a great start."
Arlene Fisher, who serves on the Democratic State Central Committee and as president of the Lafayette Square Association, said the renovations were great.
"It'll bring more people in, but it also shows people pride. Because the building is rehabbed, it's a liveable building now — and it shows people a different view of police."
Toward the end of the unveiling, Plank said the renovation "is hopefully one of many" — noting there are eight other police districts in the city that could use some upgrades but making no promises of investment there.
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
In addition to the J.S. Plank and D.M. DiCarlo Family Foundation, which Plank runs with his wife Dana DiCarlo, donors to the project included Under Armour, the Baltimore Ravens, Comcast, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the Bozzuto Group, the Sylvan Laureate Foundation, the Abell Foundation and the Wells Fargo Foundation.
Officials had estimated the project would cost $2.4 million last year, but "the actual cost of the project increased as the scope changed and the work progressed," according to Steven Jennings, chief financial officer for War Horse.
Also on Wednesday, Davis announced a new $80,000 contract between the city and Behavioral Health System Baltimore to provide a new "police officer health and wellness program" that provides officers with a range of counseling and health services, from family and financial counseling to legal advice and care related to drug and alcohol abuse.
"We know a healthy employment is more likely to serve the residents of Baltimore better and more professionally and have a rewarding experience," Davis said. "For as large of an agency that we are, this has been a real need, a real gap that we've had for far, far too long, and I think this partnership with BHS will fill that gap and we will have employees who will not hesitate to get help when life's demands and life's challenges knock on their doors."