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New York Times podcast takes hard-eyed look at Baltimore's police problems

Baltimore Police give an update about the incident in which a Coppin State University police officer shot and killed a gunman firing upon a car at the edge of campus Tuesday evening. (Kevin Rector/Baltimore Sun video)

Near the end of the first hour of “Charm City,” a five-part New York Times audio series that launched today, correspondent Sabrina Tavernise says she and producer Lynsea Garrison came to Baltimore to report a story about a teen victim of a shooting death in 2016.

But during their four months on the case, she says, their report grew to include the narratives of the mother and grandmother of the victim, as well the story of a police department in a deadly downward spiral that has accelerated since the death of Freddie Gray.

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“And it’s also about a city,” Tavernise says in summary, “where three years after the death of Freddie Gray, the homicide rate is higher and the trust in the police is worse.”

“Charm City” is an ambitious, enterprising and at times powerful piece of audio storytelling. It sounds as if Tavernise and Garrison connect deeply during the first hour with Davetta Parker and Lashanada Douglas, the grandmother and mother, respectively, of the teen victim, Lavar Montray Douglas. He was shot by a campus police officer near Coppin State University in December, 2016.

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Video released by Baltimore Police on Friday showed a Coppin State University police officer on routine patrol suddenly finding himself in the middle of a gun attack — and firing back — at a West Baltimore intersection on the edge of campus Tuesday evening.

Their reporting and interviewing seems empathetic and respectful of what these relatives of the victim have gone through. Yet, they also sound open to new information, and unwilling to blindly accept what the victim’s mother and grandmother are saying.

After hearing just one episode, I am nowhere near being able to make a clear call on their work. But I’ve heard enough to come back for more.

What impressed me even most in this first hour is how much research and care went into providing context and laying the groundwork for listeners to judge the death of any young black man at the hands of police in Baltimore.

The first 16 minutes are steeped in the history of black men dying at the hands of police or in police custody nationwide. The report goes beyond Gray’s death in 2015, to Michael Young in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York.

“Charm City” uses audio wisely and winningly to bring Baltimore’s recent history to life.

Police scanner conversation during the uprising at Mondawmin Mall on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral made me feel as if I was back in that moment watching it in disbelief on cable TV. You can hear the confusion and disarray in officers’ voices across the scanner. Eulogies at Gray’s funeral resonate with the community’s outrage and pain.

Freddie Gray briefly locked eyes with police about 8:39 a.m. on a breezeless, impoverished corner in West Baltimore, setting in motion a series of events that continue to spark protests nearly two weeks later. But unanswered questions remain.

“Charm City” is not a two-people-with-a-microphone-talking kind of podcast. This is a highly-produced effort, the audio equivalent of a TV or film documentary.

Speaking of documentaries, if you have been watching Showtime’s “The Fourth Estate,” the outstanding four-part documentary series from Liz Garbus about the efforts by the Times to cover President Trump’s administration, you’ve seen how important “The Daily” team, which produced “Charm City,” is to the future of the paper. This team is getting money, time and talent to help take the Times into its digital future, and it shows in “Charm City.”

That said, I do have some issues with the first hour. Tavernise’s narration at a couple of points is less exact that I would expect from a Times’ production, for example.

“I think the last time the country had paid attention to Baltimore was right after the killing of Freddie Gray,” she says early in Part 1.

Digital is different than print, of course, including a more colloquial feel in language.

But I don’t think standards of precision should be sacrificed for that.

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“I think” is often a way of saying, “I don’t really know for sure.” If you don’t know, say that. Don’t make a generalization if you cannot do so with precision. The Times print edition doesn’t do that.

Baltimore hit 100 homicides for the year with the fatal stabbing of a 74-year-old man at home and the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old boy on a rec center basketball court in separate incidents Tuesday, marking the second fastest pace of killings in the city in a decade.

There is room for disagreement on how you define “paid attention.” But Baltimore did get a lot of attention at the end of last year when it set a record for per-capita homicides. You can look that up.

There were also points where voices were not identified. I was troubled by that. If a soundbite is going to be included without identifying the speaker, especially if they are saying something controversial, listeners should be informed why the speaker is not ID’d — just as readers are informed as to why anonymity is granted someone in print.

If you’re interested in reading more about the case, here are some links to some past Baltimore Sun coverage:

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