About 100 Baltimore police officers, commanders and academy trainees piled into the pews of the historic Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church on Tuesday to learn about the history of Baltimore's neighborhoods.
The lecture, given by University of Baltimore assistant history professor Elizabeth Nix, was the first in the department's new "History of Baltimore Speaker Series" — developed after last spring's unrest to provide officers with a better understanding of the communities they serve.
Commissioner Kevin Davis has said he sees the lecture series as a way to improve police-community relations by better preparing young cops for interactions with local residents.
The lecture was titled "How did we get here?" and discussed "how neighborhoods developed, different immigrant groups that lived in different [neighborhoods], Baltimore churches, and some of the laws that got passed that created segregated neighborhoods," Nix said. "As you move across the city, you kind of get an understanding of how those neighborhoods developed."
Beyond looking at segregation policies, which controlled economic opportunity and housing decisions in Baltimore for years, the group also read from the part of Frederick Douglass' autobiography that touches on his time in Baltimore, discussed immigration trends in the city and looked at an old directory from 1916 and 1917 that showed people with diverse occupations all living together in certain neighborhoods.
"I teach history, so I have to believe that knowing history helps you create solutions and understand better the life that you're living today," Nix said.
She said the officers were an "attentive audience," and the event went well. Davis sat through a large portion of the lecture, she said, and seemed to take it "very seriously."
Lt. Jarron Jackson, a police spokesman, said more lectures are scheduled to provide officers and trainees with additional insights into other cultures and minority groups who make up part of the Baltimore population, from the Orthodox Jewish community to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
"It's teaching them a sense of empathy through understanding. It may not be that our officers are being insensitive, they just don't understand the culture they are working with," Jackson said. "Giving them that background helps with that."