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In West Baltimore, consent decree brings relief, skepticism

In West Baltimore, consent decree brings relief, skepticism.

In the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested, Leanda High saw progress against police abuse and harassment in a federal order calling for sweeping changes to the Baltimore Police Department.

But she also saw complications.

Perhaps now, she said, police won't curse at black men, force them to show a driver's license when they're walking down alleys or treat people with disrespect, even physical abuse. Under the consent decree, a 227-page list of guidelines from the Department of Justice, Baltimore officers will be required to call their supervisors before arresting someone for shooting craps, disobeying officers, making false statements or trespassing.

But High, 56, said that also means officers must jump through another hoop before chasing away the drug sellers on her North Fulton Avenue block. She closed down her home day care two years ago, because, she said, parents were too scared of the dealers to come by.

The consent decree was a rare step by Justice Department officials to curb patterns and practices they believed led to civil rights violations. The decree was issued after Baltimore had paid millions of dollars in civil settlements for alleged abuses or unnecessary force by officers.

At the national forefront of such incidents was the April 2015 arrest and death of Gray, which set off weeks of protests and unrest.

In the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood Gray hailed from, the federal order was met with relief and gratitude, but also skepticism and concern. The neighborhood is the city's most violent — leading in total shootings last year. And it's widely considered the neighborhood in which relations between police and the community need the most repair.

On Friday, High stood on the steps of her rowhouse and reflected on the task police face — retraining officers on how to interact with the public, while also trying to suppress violence in a city that saw more than 300 homicides in each of the past two years. Within eyeshot of her home is a large mural depicting Gray's face, demonstrators holding signs and a scroll listing others killed in interactions with Baltimore police.

"Most of all, it says be respectful and get to know your community," High said of the consent decree. "I don't think we're asking a lot."

Her grandmother owned the rowhouse High lives in, and she remembered a time when everyone knew the beat cop who walked by twirling his baton, and teens grew up looking up to officers who supervised the Police Athletic Leagues they played in.

It's that interaction, she said, that's missing, and she hopes the consent decree pushes officers and youths to get to know each other better. Her interactions with police have been mostly positive, and she said she sees progress with younger police hires, who seem more polite and willing to talk to residents.

But she also said she has heard homeowners complaining recently that officers tell them they can't do anything when they ask police to shoo people loitering outside their homes if there is no observable crime.

"Homeowners who don't want people hanging around really can't get rid of them," High said. "But they can't come and tell them to leave the front."

Balancing civil rights while also responding to homeowner complaints and suspicions will be just one of the many challenges police are facing because of the decree.

In Annapolis, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told state lawmakers Friday his force is well-positioned to carry out the reforms — provided it can pay for them.

"We're going to need all the help we can get," Davis told Baltimore City's delegates. "The question of the day — or one of them — is how much is the consent decree going to cost?"

Many reforms will dramatically increase costs, including staffing increases, reducing caseloads, improving the use of data and increased training, he said. Already, Davis said, he plans to double the annual officer training requirement to 80 hours and include training in implicit bias.

The commissioner said Baltimore doesn't have enough patrol sergeants to adequately oversee patrol officers, which "withers the effectiveness of supervision." Sergeants, lieutenants and captains will be even more pressed with demands after the decree, including the requirement that supervisors must sign off on arrests for minor crimes.

Baltimore Del. Cheryl Glenn urged Davis to recruit more women and more city residents or officers familiar with an urban environment.

"You have to have more people who are comfortable in the cultural environment they serve," she said. "You can't have officers who are afraid to patrol in the 'hood."

Outside a nearby corner store, Shaun Young, 28, laughed skeptically at whether the consent decree would stop officers from constantly stopping him. Most recently, he said, he was arrested for disturbing the peace for filming another person getting arrested as part of Baltimore Copwatch. The charge was dropped, he said.

"What basically happens is that they said there's a procedure that has to be in place that police have to follow," he said. "But the reason that they put these procedures in place is because police weren't following procedures."

Young also doesn't want to see police chase him off corners. Rather, he wants to see more of them on foot patrol so he can be safe and hang out in his neighborhood.

"N— dying left and right," he said.

Mechille Shaw, 38, who has lived in Sandtown-Winchester for 26 years, said she understands the complexity of policing in her neighborhood.

"In order to get respect, you got to give it," she said.

Using a megaphone to tell people to "get the f— off a corner" — which she said she has seen — doesn't earn police any respect.

"They don't ask why you're on the corner, they just assume you're either buying drugs or selling drugs, and that's not necessarily true," she said.

Grandfathers, mothers and working people wait around at bus stops, she noted, but so do drug dealers. Police need to work on being more selective, she said, just as some young adults need to understand that police are doing a needed job.

"Hopefully we can go back to the way it was when we were raised to respect the police," she said. "It should go both ways."

Craig Anthony, 56, a tow truck driver, said he hasn't been stopped by officers in about 20 years, but he understands complaints from teens and young men who say they often do. The blame, he said, lies both with undereducated young people who can't reason, communicate and negotiate with officers and with overbearing, unbending and hostile Western District officers who want to rule the area with "an iron fist."

"That's the Western way," he said. "If the officers would get out of those cars and just walk the beat like they used to do back in the day and get to know the community they work in, things would be a lot more easier," he said. "Because instead of seeing [just] a body, you would know a man for his work. … You would see him day in, day out.

"If you talked to them, you might see them with different eyes," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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