On a summer night in 2005, nearing home after a long evening of work, I was robbed and shot in the head.
I was walking back from the bus stop, as I had done countless times before. I worked nights at Johns Hopkins Hospital for extra cash, putting some aside to save for my future. In Baltimore, where I was born and still live today, planning for the future can be a volatile thing. And on that night over a decade ago, I came too close to finding out just how volatile life as a Baltimorean can be.
It wasn't until later that night, after I fell victim to senseless gun violence, that I felt the hopelessness that has overcome so many of my neighbors. Because once the sound of the blast quieted, I opened my eyes to find even more guns drawn on me. But these weren't the guns of the kids who robbed me. These were the weapons of the Baltimore police.
I often wonder about that night and how I was supposed to feel. Were the police were just following protocol or was there was something darker at play? I wonder what the cops saw when they trained their weapons on me, blood leaking down my face, the obvious victim of a violent crime. They certainly didn't see a gun in my hand. What did a victim look like to them? Was I someone worth protecting? Or maybe it was just anger or fear?
I couldn't and still cannot make sense of what danger I might have posed to the police then. I knew, though, that this was the notorious "us vs. them" mentality, and I knew it to be just as embedded in the streets as it is in the police force.
Just 21 percent of the Baltimore Police force lives within the jurisdiction they patrol. It's difficult to have a connection with a community in which you don't live, and harder still to connect with a community from the outside looking in. Unsurprisingly, there is an immense disconnect between our police and the citizens they are sworn to serve. A foreigner in uncharted territory will respond to the unfamiliar with fear.
But in my case, I saw first-hand — as I had seen many times before — the police force's capacity to dehumanize, by criminalizing before understanding, by assuming guilt before assuming innocence. In turn, Baltimoreans don't view the police as a system to support, protect and serve, but as an outside force looking to destroy our daily lives. But this doesn't have to be the case.
The Baltimore Police Department, and the community it serves, would benefit tremendously from hiring more individuals with diverse backgrounds, but more importantly by hiring from within Baltimore City itself. Protecting and serving the same community in which you live is inherently a more compassionate, understanding and effective model. Baltimore needs protecting from those who understand it is worth protecting.
One year ago, the world witnessed this tension exploding in what is known now as the Baltimore Uprising, or the Baltimore Riots, depending on whom you ask. Freddie Gray's death in police custody was the spark, and the streets became the platform for decades of perceived mistreatment and over-criminalization of Baltimore youth at the hands of the police.
I have worked for years trying to unpack the layers of mistrust that have calloused and numbed the Baltimore where I grew up, launching youth outreach and community engagement projects and seeking to build change from the bottom-up. But this alone can't stop the violence. We need help from the top, too.
Last November, I participated in a criminal justice roundtable organized with the help of local leaders of the criminal justice reform movement and hosted by Generation Progress, a national youth organization based out of Washington, D.C. Along with local, state and national activists, organizers, policy experts, law enforcement agents, elected officials, academics, entrepreneurs and formerly incarcerated individuals, we aired our experiences, grievances and recommendations, hoping that a national audience would heed our cries. It is this kind of diversity in voices that builds sustainable change.
Policymakers would gain so much from listening to our actual experiences rather than making judgments from afar. Policy should echo from the community into the chambers of policymakers at every level of government, and it should be formed with the community in the room, not just in mind. Because in protecting and serving, understanding need not be overlooked.
DeJuan Patterson is a community organizer and business consultant with the BeMore Group. His email is DeJuanPatterson@gmail.com.