Baltimore County Police body camera footage show a grandmother, Rena Mellerson, and her granddaughter, Cierra Floyd, being arrested.

Recently-released police body camera footage of a 76-year-old grandmother tossed to the ground by Baltimore County police officers isn’t pretty, nor was it expected to be. The original viral footage of the arrest captured on a cellphone camera was harsh enough. Police Chief Melissa Hyatt called the cellphone video “unsettling,” and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has agreed the whole thing is “difficult" to watch. "In terms of interactions with the police department, it’s not what I’d expect for residents in Baltimore County,” he observed — an early front-runner for understatement of the year.

The incident started with the woman’s granddaughter speaking abusively toward police and escalated quickly from name-calling to the officer pepper spraying. Slamming grandmothers isn’t a good look for anyone, so the conduct of the officers involved has been the central focus of the investigation.


But criticizing the arresting officers for poor judgement doesn’t quite capture the entire picture of what happened and all the factors involved. To watch the body camera video is to also see some exceptionally poor decision-making by Cierra Floyd, the woman the officers were trying to arrest and later tracked to the nearby home of her grandmother, Rena Mellerson. Ms. Floyd’s initial tongue-lashing of police, who had been summoned to her neighborhood on a report of disorderly conduct, was spectacularly inappropriate as well. In short, she sees them gathered in the parking lot, she tells them to go away, shouts at them how much she dislikes police and, when they ask for her name (or later warn her to stay in her home), she outright taunts them, “Am I supposed to be scared of you?”

At first, police show some patience. They gather around trying to assess the situation and shrug off the emotional response their presence has caused. But, eventually, the behavior gets to be too much. Perhaps at least one officer felt threatened. And that leads to a police warning of a “disorderly conduct” arrest, which does little to calm the residents who, by this time, surely see the gathered officers as intruders, not public servants.

Watch the video. It is a clash of cultures. Ms. Floyd and a handful of others are truly angry. And an officer, initially bewildered by the strong emotional response under the circumstances, goes from calm and questioning to annoyed and then irate in a matter of minutes.

Why do things go so wrong so quickly? Here’s what we believe is at the heart of the matter: The police and the residents had no connection. They didn’t know each other. It wasn’t as if an officer had a pre-existing relationship with anyone on the block, let alone the Floyd household. Police were seen with suspicion for any number of reasons. Perhaps because most of the officers were white and the residents African American. Maybe they’d had past bad interactions with police. Or their relatives had. Or they were simply cognizant of the legacy of aggressive policing in minority communities.

This 13 minutes of videotape neatly illustrates why community policing is so important. It’s why the encounter was doomed before it happened. Police need to know the people on their beat. Without that relationship, distrust sabotages everything. They need to get to know each other a little bit. Perhaps through local church gatherings, informational meetings with tenant councils, coordinating with social service providers, schools and local businesses. Crime prevention talks, watch groups — there is no shortage of ways to foster positive relationships. Indeed, Baltimore County has been making this a point of emphasis in recent years. Efforts need to continue. If anything, they need to be increased.

Again, that doesn’t make the officers involved blameless. Nor does it excuse the grade-school worthy behavior demonstrated by a resident. But this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Gwynn Oak is only about 4.5 miles from West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, the home of Freddie Gray whose 2015 death in police custody sparked more than a week of unrest and an often-painful reexamination of the relationship of police-community relations in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The release of the body camera footage, while painful, was a helpful step. It signals transparency and a willingness to hold everyone involved accountable, including the officers. But there’s clearly more to be done in normalizing what should have been a routine interaction with local residents. We need to learn how to talk to each other.