Baltimore County police officer's death ignites a racial firestorm

It’s hard to think of a more volatile mix: Four young black males from Baltimore City, accused in the death of a white female police officer in Baltimore County. Authorities say three of the teenagers were breaking into homes when the fourth ran the officer over in a stolen Jeep.

Predictably enough, social media, call-in radio and other forums blew up. A sampling from the Baltimore County Police & Fire Facebook page:

“I was hoping they’d kill him during apprehension. What a waste of life. He’s currently breathing air some decent person could be breathing.”

“I personally am tired of good for nothing hood rats committing adult crimes and people STILL saying crap like, he had hard times growing up, society made him do these things because he had no role models.”

“I hope all you whites have the same level outrage next time one of your youths decide to shoot up a school of innocent children,” another wrote. “Y’all are a disgusting group of devils.”

No previous case has generated as much online reaction, county fire spokeswoman Elise Armacost said. Authorities pleaded repeatedly for civility, and county staff took down comments that contained profanity or were typed in all caps. But they have struggled to keep up with the avalanche of angry postings — many of which called for the accused driver to be hanged, shot, run over or raped.

“Sadly, these comments are a microcosm of the conflicts and lack of civility we see in the country right now,” Armacost said.

Stephanie DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, has long studied Baltimore youth. She’s also the daughter of a 40-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. She described the “absolutely awful” case as a kind of perfect, polarizing storm.

“It touches on all these intersections — of race, policing, city-county,” said DeLuca, co-author of the 2016 book “Coming of Age in the Other America.”

“Once fear is sparked, anger is sparked,” she said.

Authorities say the teens were burglarizing homes in Perry Hall Monday afternoon when Baltimore County Police Officer Amy S. Caprio approached the Jeep. They say driver Dawnta Harris, 16, of the Gilmor Homes public housing project in West Baltimore, ran her over.

Caprio died a short time later. Harris and three other youths were charged as adults with first-degree murder.

That the black youths had driven to the county, populated in no small part by decades of white flight from the city, fueled heated exchanges online and over the airwaves.

Where some saw predatory “animals” and “thugs,” others saw demonization and a rush to judgment. Finger-pointing between city prosecutors and state juvenile officials only added to the fire.

“It's time that we just turn the city over to the hoodlums and just let them annihilate themselves,” one commentor wrote on The Baltimore Sun’s Facebook page.

DeLuca said the anger obscures an important point: Most young people in Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods are going to school or working or both, not out on the streets and creating mayhem.

“They’re looking for something to do, something to be about,” she said. “This is about human development, personal development, and finding meaning and dignity, and these are in short supply in Baltimore.”

Instead, she said, it’s people like Harris, who authorities say fled home detention earlier this month while awaiting sentencing for a car theft, who are “viewed as the norm.”

“The thing I think is important to remember is this is not the typical kid,” DeLuca said. “But no one wants to hear that in the face of this tragedy.”

And indeed, online comments tend to follow a pattern: A poster calls for the suspects to “ROT in prison & actually they should get the DEATH PENALTY!” Others chime in with similar proposals, until eventually someone demurs, perhaps expressing empathy for the youths’ families or pointing out that police have killed suspects but escaped accountability. Then that draws a backlash, and the cycle continues.

On the WBAL radio show hosted by Clarence M. Mitchell IV, known on the air as C4, callers have been talking about little else.

“You’re talking about a black young man from Gilmor Homes in a very, very white area, and a white female police officer — the racial dynamics can’t be eliminated,” said Mitchell, a former Democratic state senator and scion of a family of civil rights activists.

But he said “people who get involved with racial animus” now generally get called out for it, a change from the past.

He sees the real issue in this case as the failings of the juvenile services and juvenile justice systems. Harris had been arrested in several car thefts before Monday, and had been ordered on home detention earlier this month.

“If we worry about some people’s language, we’re never going to help these kids. Let’s not be so defensive,” Mitchell said, “I’m sorry, at some point we have to stop being so sensitive. We are too worried about how we look as opposed to correcting this reality.

“The reality is we have a problem. We are a violent city. We have a dysfunctional juvenile justice system,” he said. “Those are the facts.”

At times like these, Mitchell said, he remembers what his maternal grandfather used to say.

“‘Son, buzzards can’t circle if ain’t nothing down there,’” Mitchell said.

Antero Pietila, who has written about the ways decades-old laws, racial covenants and red-lining created the segregation that persists in much of the Baltimore region today, said the reaction to Caprio’s death reveals the continuing tensions between the city and county.

“After white flight, a lot of people who moved to Baltimore County … felt victimized by blacks — ‘they made me move,’” said Pietila, author of “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.”

“At stressful times, all these emotions come out,” he said. “These are not logical matters. These are matters where emotions rise, and prejudices take hold.”

Pietila is a former reporter and editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun. While city-county tensions have a long history, he said, they now play out in the context of a noisy, divisive political climate.

“What is part of this discussion is the demonization of certain groups that is happening at the national level,” he said. “A lot of people who have strong feelings, maybe they used to be more circumspect. Now they let their feelings out.”

State Del. Pat McDonough, who is running in the Republican primary for Baltimore County executive, unloaded on his Facebook page Wednesday night:

“Here we go again. Another thug destroys the life of an innocent person. This time it's a wonderful woman in law enforcement,” McDonough wrote. “The only thing these thugs are good at, is destroying lives. The radical left loves the thugs, and keeps complaining about mass incarceration while in reality none of them get locked up, But just roam our neighborhoods.”

Baltimore City Councilman John Bullock said some will view the officer’s death as validation of the fears that led many to flee the city for the county in the first place — and how even that won’t keep them safe.

Bullock, a political scientist at Towson University, said the first thought is, and should be, the tragedy of the loss of Caprio. But he said that shouldn’t prevent a look at larger issues surrounding the suspects: Their education, their neighborhoods, their own possible exposure to violence.

Often, he said, such discussions get shut down amid the more heated rhetoric.

“We don’t want to analyze what has brought us to this moment,” Bullock said.

He contrasted that reaction to the discussion around school shooters, who have most often been white.

“With the school shooter, there’s more psychoanalysis,” Bullock said. “That same introspection doesn’t happen in cases like this.”

Kaye Whitehead, an associate professor of communication and African & African American studies at Loyola University Maryland, is the mother of two teenage boys and author of the book “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.”

She contrasted the treatment of the four Baltimore suspects with that of the accused shooter at Santa Fe High School in Texas this month and the convicted shooter at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

“With Dimitrios Pagourtzis, or Dylann Roof, we want to know the full story of this lone wolf,” she said. “Were they mentally challenged? Were they sad? Were they lonely?

“When the perpetrator is African-American, it doesn’t matter. We don’t want a portrait.”

Whitehead said she is disturbed by the “rush to judgment” of the suspects. At Harris’ first appearance, she noted, a District Court judge called him “a one-man crime wave” and wondered aloud whether any juvenile facility was “secure enough to hold him.”

She said it’s hard to get past the racial elements of the case. She believes the language surrounding it would be much different if the suspects weren’t black males and the victim a white woman.

“This is a conversation we’ve never been able to move past,” Whitehead said. “It’s 50 years since the Kerner Report,” in which a presidential commission declared that the country was moving toward “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

“Baltimore is a microcosm of America,” Whitehead said.

If so, the wrestling over race and justice promises to continue.

Harris’ case attracted the attention of the prominent defense attorneys Warren Brown and J. Wyndal Gordon, who are now representing him. Gordon has said Caprio displayed “aggression,” raising her weapon and firing, and Harris struck her accidentally as he tried to drive around her car and away.

That rankled County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Perry Hall. He accused the attorneys of “pouring gasoline on the fire” and making excuses for their client.

He said the lawyers were deflecting responsibility for Harris’ alleged actions.

“And I have to ask, at what point does a parent’s responsibility end?” Marks said. “Why is everything society’s fault? And I think that’s the position of so many of my constituents.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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