We should at least ask more police officers to be 'of Baltimore'

If not mandatory, how about suggesting more Baltimore residency for police officers?

Officer William G. Porter is the first defendant among the Freddie Gray Six to stand trial. He is also the youngest and perhaps the most sympathetic. For part of his 26 years he lived in the same West Baltimore community that produced Freddie Gray. Porter chose a different path and, more than that, he chose to serve his hometown as a police officer. That's bound to win him some points.

The jury, after all, is made up of Baltimoreans, people who actually live in the city and own property here. Baltimoreans have strong opinions about whether the police officers whose salaries they pay should live in the city. I haven't conducted a poll, but I've been hearing the sentiment for years: Many think city residency ought to be required of police officers.

One thing Porter can say: He is "of Baltimore," and only about one in five city officers can say that.

Last spring, following the vandalism and fires that broke out on the day of Gray's funeral, the Maryland General Assembly convened a workgroup to look into the challenges Baltimore faces in fostering better relations between police and citizens. The group learned that only 21 percent of officers are Baltimore residents. Sixty-eight percent of them live elsewhere in Maryland; another 10 percent live outside the state.

Maj. Latonya Lewis, of the Baltimore Police Department's human resources unit, reported these facts, adding that the department needed to make a better effort to recruit officers who are familiar with city life. "If you live in the city, if you grew up in the city, you have a better understanding of the culture of the city," she said.

That statement does not apply only to police officers. It's true for everyone. Which gets me to the results of a recent opinion survey about the state of the city.

A November poll of likely voters conducted for The Baltimore Sun set up a comparison between Baltimoreans and Marylanders who do not live here. It showed sharp contrasts in attitudes about the city and in the reasons for its most serious problems.

In general, the poll showed, a majority of Marylanders (57 percent) believe the state is on the right track while an even larger majority (66 percent) think Baltimore is on the wrong track.

Asked about the root causes of the city's problems, a third of Baltimore voters cited a lack of job opportunities as the primary cause, with 19 percent citing racism.

Statewide, however, it was a different story. A third of voters across Maryland — and nearly 40 percent of voters in Baltimore's five surrounding counties — said "lack of personal responsibility among residents" was the chief reason for the city's problems. Fifty-two percent of Republicans agreed with that. In the minds of many who live well beyond the city's borders, Baltimore suffers from the moral failings of too many of its citizens. Poverty, drug addiction, failure in school — apparently those things are seen as character flaws.

The divide was also clear in the answers to questions about police. There was far more sympathy for police among Marylanders generally than among Baltimoreans, and about 85 percent of Republicans in the poll said they sympathized more with police than those who've demonstrated against police brutality, compared with 37 percent of Maryland Democrats.

The results didn't surprise me, given what I've heard from suburban readers, particularly since April's unrest. Steve Raabe, president of Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, which conducted the survey, found the differences in views about the city's challenges stark. "City residents are much more nuanced and conflicted in their views," he said, "while many suburbanites seem to see things in more polarized terms."

So this gets me back to the long-standing concern about Baltimore police officers living far from the streets they patrol. If you apply the conclusions of the Sun poll — that a lot of people across Maryland generally think poorly of Baltimore and Baltimoreans — to the fact that a majority of city police officers live "out there," and even in southern Pennsylvania, then you can see the roots of tension between police and citizens. Assuming that a majority of officers live among the like-minded, then you could assume that police officers have a low opinion of the people they serve.

In fact, given the conditions in the city (especially this year), police officers might be more cynical about the city and pessimistic about its prospects. A friend had a bicycle stolen a couple of years ago and, when he reported it, an officer smugly said, "That's what you get for living in the city."

I don't agree that you have to live in Baltimore to care about it. I don't think police officers should be forced to buy a house here. But if we're looking for reforms and new starts, we should start by at least asking them to consider it.


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