Two years after Freddie Gray's death, Baltimore residents say they're still waiting for change

In the days and weeks after the death of Freddie Gray shook Baltimore, leaders and activists spoke of seizing the moment to confront some of the city's most vexing challenges: entrenched poverty, mistrust between police and the community, criminal violence.

Two years after Gray's death, some wonder if Baltimore let slip an opportunity to achieve lasting change.

The six police officers who were charged in Gray's arrest and death walked free. Promised funding for community-based initiatives has dried up. Crime has risen to startling levels, and arrests are down. And much of the city remains mired in poverty.

Schone White, a barber, works near Gilmor Homes in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore. Gray was arrested near the public housing project on April 12, 2015.

"Changes?" White asked. "I haven't really seen any changes in this area."

But others say they see reasons to hang on to optimism — perhaps none stronger than a judge's approval Friday of a consent decree that will direct reforms in the Baltimore Police Department.

"I feel like the city's been engaged in two years of conversation," said Ray Kelly, president of the No Boundaries Coalition and a longtime Sandtown-Winchester resident. "And [Friday] was the first day of actual change, where now we can start to work to put this damn thing back together."

Gray's death after being arrested, and the unrest that followed, jolted city leaders into conversations about structural racism, poverty, educational opportunity and police misconduct. City Councilman Leon Pinkett, a West Baltimore Democrat who was elected last year, said police reform is one of the few items moving forward.

"When we look at the number of social and economic issues that face Sandtown," he said, "I don't think we're making enough progress."

Pinkett said there needs to be more investment in creating local jobs and affordable housing. He said health disparities in communities such as Sandtown "rival those of Third World countries," and lamented that problems such as poor access to healthful food remain unsolved.

"It's difficult to say that something good could have come out of such a tragic situation, but it shined a light on disparities that have gone on a long time," Pinkett said. "By shining that light, it's given us an opportunity to really address it in a comprehensive way.

"To this point, we have not taken advantage of the opportunity."

After the riots, funding for Baltimore and police reform became hot topics in the General Assembly. State government, businesses and nonprofits poured millions of dollars into charitable causes in the city.

Gov. Larry Hogan pledged money to attack city blight, and state housing officials say more than 850 buildings have been torn down. About $28 million was lined up for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, and $47 million more is to be spent over the next two years on demolition or rehabilitation projects. Crumbling blocks have been replaced with grassy vacant fields or gardens.

White, the barber, points to the demolition as one positive. An abandoned church next to his barbershop, Shebangs, was torn down last year, and he hopes it will be turned into a lot where neighbors can set up a picnic table and a grill.

"That will be nice," White said.

Other projects quickly lost steam. When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake started her One Baltimore initiative aimed at uniting the city and funding programs, officials said Kids Safe Zone in West Baltimore could be a recipient.

Two years later, One Baltimore has shut down, and Kids Safe Zone founder Ericka Alston-Buck says she never saw a penny.

But Alston-Buck pushed forward, scraping together donations from around the country to provide sanctuary for children ages 5 to 17 after school and during the summer. She's added a family support center to help parents, and another center to house children and their mothers who are undergoing substance abuse treatment.

"A lot of people disappeared when the cameras disappeared," Alston-Buck said. "We are still here because of hard work, cursing, stomping and demanding."

Michael Cryor, chairman of One Baltimore, said the organization raised millions of dollars for summer jobs for youths, laptops and equipment that went to more than 40 community groups.

Cryor said he personally helped raise more than $3 million for youth summer jobs and $2 million for tech equipment. But as Gray's death and the riots began to fade into memory, he said, it became more difficult to raise money.

After meeting with Mayor Catherine Pugh, elected in November to succeed Rawlings-Blake, Cryor shut the program down this year. Cryor said he will help advise Pugh, but One Baltimore's work will be spread throughout city government.

"One Baltimore was an appropriate response to the unrest," Cryor said. "But we were hit with a tsunami of expectations and need. …

"I was never presented with a source of money that we didn't follow up on."

Pugh said One Baltimore's mission was too unfocused, and more can get done if the city partners with business and community groups on targeted projects.

"I don't think we can afford to be all over the place," she said. "We need to focus. It is the role of the mayor to help lead the city. A lot work needs to be done."

Pugh, as a state senator in 2015, helped calm tensions at the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues, where some of the worst rioting broke out. She's repeatedly visited the area as mayor and has picked out a number of spots for improvement. Pugh said she's planning to fix up nearby sports fields and invest more in the Shake and Bake roller skating center.

She said she believes mobile employment centers that will aim to connect residents with jobs could be a big help in Sandtown.

"There still needs to be more investment in that particular part of the city," she said. "We've got to find people jobs."

Violence in Baltimore spiked after Gray's death, and crime remains a major concern.

The city suffered more than 300 killings in each of the past two years. 2015 was the city's deadliest year, per capita, on record. 2016 was second.

Through April 1, homicides are up 60 percent this year compared with the same period in 2015, before Gray's death. Nonfatal shootings have doubled, and robberies are up nearly 70 percent.

"We are living in a danger zone and not getting the protection we need," said the Rev. Keith Bailey, a pastor of Greater Bethesda Baptist Church in West Baltimore and president of the Fulton Heights Community Organization. Gray performed more than 100 hours of court-ordered community service with the organization.

Bailey, who works with area youths, estimates he's known at least 100 people who have been shot over the past two years.

He was at a vigil for one shooting victim last July when a gunman unleashed a round of bullets, hitting five mourners. He said he recently found a body in an alley behind his home.

"Crime has risen," he said. "There are not enough policemen in Western District. We have cars that are stolen off our streets. Police don't come right away to calls."

He said he's heard similar complaints from other neighborhood representatives on the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council.

City officials say the consent decree approved Friday by U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar will not only reform police practices but also help reduce crime by fostering bonds with the community.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed skepticism, saying he has "grave concerns that some of the provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city."

At a community meeting last week, activist J.C. Faulk told State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis that he believed police officers were still avoiding accountability.

"What do we need to do?" Faulk asked Davis. "We march, we go to meetings, we speak to you, we send emails, make calls — and then we still have police officers killing citizens, and they walk away."

Davis replied that the agency's commitment to reform "is real."

"There are 18,000 police departments in our nation," he said. "And I dare say there aren't any more progressive than Baltimore is right now."

Police can point to metrics that show progress: Taser deployments and complaints about use of force are each down more than 40 percent. The department rewrote its use-of-force policies for the first time in 13 years. Davis fired 23 officers last year.

The city also has equipped officers with body cameras and now records the interiors of vans used to transport detainees, hoping to prevent another death like Gray's.

But the news isn't all good. Seven officers from an elite unit that had been praised by the department were indicted last month on federal racketeering charges.

FBI and DEA investigators said the officers had been shaking down citizens, falsifying paperwork to justify stops and receiving overtime for hours they had not worked. And it all was alleged to have occurred in the midst of the Justice Department's review of the agency.

Baltimoreans interviewed for this article were split on whether police had pulled back and weren't providing enough support, or remained overaggressive and unchecked.

"Dirty cops still exist," said Anthony Melvin, 49, of West Baltimore. "That's not going to ever change."

But for the most part, Melvin said, he sees police trying harder to engage constructively with the community they serve.

"Police officers are out observing and communicating," he said. "They are trying to build a relationship with people on the street. And there was a time when it was not like that."

Officer Kenneth B. Butler, who last year became the first African-American elected vice president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said many officers are reluctant to do police work proactively out of fear of making a mistake.

That has emboldened criminals, he said.

Still, he said, the relationship between the police and the community is improving.

"When I'm working, you have people coming up to you and saying, 'Hey, be safe,'" Butler said. "The criminal element will never like us, but we know that. But random people are thanking us for our service."

Tony Parker, 52, standing at a corner store on North Avenue and Mount streets, said he sees police officers conducting fewer stop-and-frisks of citizens.

The bigger problem, he says, is the lack of jobs, programs and facilities to occupy youths.

One of Freddie Gray's aunts said life for the family has calmed down, but she doesn't see any substantial change in Baltimore.

Linda Gray, the sister of Gray's father, said the family remains upset that the officers charged in her nephew's death were not convicted. The city did agree to pay Gray's family $6.4 million to settle civil claims stemming from his death.

Mosby, the city's state's attorney, charged the six officers less than two weeks after his death with violations that ranged from misconduct in office to, in one case, second-degree murder.

Three officers were acquitted, and charges were dropped against the remaining three. Then Mosby pivoted to working on ways to reform police investigations.

She said her office's investigation of Gray's death had been hamstrung by its reliance on police to gather most of the evidence.

Mosby put forward a slate of proposals, one of which — giving her office's investigators police powers — was introduced in Annapolis this year. The bill died without getting a vote in the Democratic-controlled committee needed to advance it to the full chamber.

Separate probes of Gray's death by Montgomery County police, investigating on behalf of Baltimore's internal affairs division, and the Justice Department remain ongoing.

Mosby herself now faces questions in court about the case. Five of the six officers filed a federal lawsuit alleging defamation and malicious prosecution. Mosby has appealed the grounds for the case, but a judge has allowed it to move forward with depositions.

"You still see police brutality all over the place, and they are still getting acquitted," said Linda Gray. For any change to occur, she said, "more of them need to be held accountable."

Cryor, who led One Baltimore, said he believes people now are better informed about the struggles of the black community in America.

"I think they recognize this is not a quick fix," he said. "The systemic nature of the years of neglect has culminated in a parallel universe. There are many groups trying to figure out how to be more helpful."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the city has shown resilience over the last two years and there are reasons for hope.

"Baltimore has been through many crises and Baltimore has always come back," he said.

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