Policing Baltimore's police

The death of Freddie Gray and the riots that followed have brought Baltimore's problems to the forefront of national, even international, attention. The drug addiction, poverty, failing schools, health disparities, deteriorating housing, broken families and unemployment that plague neighborhoods like the one where Gray lived and was arrested in have been on full display, and they have become a part of the larger discussion about what it would mean to bring about justice in the wake of his death. It's a conversation Baltimore and many cities like it need to have, and in the weeks and months ahead, we intend to play a role in fostering it.

But as important as all those issues are in understanding the context of Baltimore's present unrest, they are not what led to two weeks of peaceful protests and two nights of mayhem and violence. First and foremost, Baltimore needs to address the prevalent and well documented brutality some members of its police force inflict on residents of mostly poor and minority communities. State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby brought the focus back to that issue Friday with her indictments of six officers in the case, describing their actions as callously indifferent to Gray's pleas for medical attention. What has become readily apparent is that far more people in Baltimore have experienced that kind of treatment, though thankfully with a less tragic end, than we might like to admit.


The past week has seen an avalanche of accounts from those who grew up in inner city Baltimore of their encounters with brutal, dehumanizing policing tactics. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who grew up near the epicenter of Monday's riots and whose mother was raised in the same housing project where Gray lived, wrote that "everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but fear and caution." He added: "When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of police brutality, it betrays itself." D. Watkins, the Baltimore native, author and Coppin State professor, wrote in The New York Times about run-ins with the cops that left him, his family and friends bruised, bloodied and humiliated, even when they were the victims of crime. "To us, the Baltimore Police Department is a group of terrorists, funded by our tax dollars, who beat on people in our community daily, almost never having to explain or pay for their actions." Shaun La, a writer and photographer who grew up in Baltimore, wrote in The Sun that "some of the cops would use Black Baltimore as a playground to do whatever they wanted to do."

There's more here than just anecdotal accounts. Last fall, The Sun's Mark Puente documented more than 100 instances in the last five years when the city paid settlements or judgments in police brutality cases totaling nearly $6 million, with a like amount spent on legal fees. The cases were harrowing: "Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson." In virtually all instances, the charges against the victims were dropped, yet some officers were named in multiple such suits without the city taking notice.


Complaints of excessive force and strained relations between the community and police are nothing new — they were also at issue the last time Baltimore saw riots, in 1968 — and they aren't unique to this city, either. But they have become amplified as the war on drugs has led to a massive increase in enforcement in neighborhoods like Gray's, and long prison sentences even for non-violent offenders. Gov. Martin O'Malley, contemplating a run for president, is finding himself on the hot seat for the aggressive policing tactics he encouraged while mayor more than a decade ago, a time when the equivalent of nearly one out of every six Baltimore residents was arrested in a given year. Prosecutors didn't even bother to file charges in a third of the cases. The zero-tolerance strategy led to a lawsuit by the NAACP and ACLU that was settled years after Mr. O'Malley had left for Annapolis, with the city agreeing to pay $870,000 and accept outside monitoring of its arrests for quality of life crimes.

After violence broke out last week, Mr. O'Malley cut short a trip to Ireland, but he found himself heckled by residents of West Baltimore. Perhaps more worrisome for him, presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, whom Mr. O'Malley has been trying to outflank on the left, made an "out of balance" criminal justice system one of the first policy focuses of her campaign, saying "There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts."

Yet Mr. O'Malley spoke some truth in defending himself when he noted that "In all my years of mayor I never had one community leader ever ask for less of a police presence in their neighborhood." Indeed, there is a broader context here, and it is that the heavy enforcement in inner city Baltimore didn't spring out of nowhere. It was a reaction to the real and present threat of violent crime that, in the decade before Mr. O'Malley became mayor, resulted in more than 300 homicides every year — most of them in neighborhoods like Freddie Gray's. Murders immediately dropped below that horrific level after Mr. O'Malley introduced tough New York-style policing here, and he can justifiably claim hundreds of lives saved as a result.

But what the former mayor has been stubbornly unable to accept is that crime continued to drop after he left City Hall, even as the number of arrests plummeted. In 2013, when violence was ticking up in the city (though still well below the levels when he was mayor), Mr. O'Malley publicly made the case that the city needed to start arresting more people, despite data showing no real correlation between violent crime and the total number of arrests.

Clearly, the answer is not simply for the police to stop enforcing the laws. As much as we believe the nation has erred in treating drug addiction primarily as a problem of criminal justice rather than public health, the truth is that not all drug offenders are non-violent, and innocent people in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester pay a terrible price for it. We cannot forget the truly malevolent face of Baltimore's crime problems, as shown in cases like that of the Dawson family, a mother, father and five children who were killed in 2002 when a man tied to the local drug trade burned their house down in retaliation for her efforts to keep the dealers away from her block.

But there must be another way, one that keeps communities like Sandtown-Winchester safe without dehumanizing their residents in the process. Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts say they have been working for the last two years to find it. Mr. Batts has proclaimed himself a "reform commissioner," and he has been visible in community meetings, beefed up foot patrols to encourage more face-to-face contact between officers and citizens and disbanded a specialized unit that had been the subject of many use-of-force complaints.

But whatever the merits of their efforts, they clearly have not won over those who felt persecuted by the police, and it's easy to see why. The mayor and commissioner have been slow or ineffectual at pushing through the kind of concrete reforms that would offer residents tangible proof that the department was really trying to change.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake was unable to get any other local government leaders to join her push to reform legislation that limits police departments' ability to discipline officers; she didn't even get Commissioner Batts to testify in favor of it. When she announced, on the eve of the legislative session's final day, that she would return to Annapolis to make a last push for her package of reform bills, it was already too late.


The city has been discussing equipping officers with body cameras to record their interactions with the public since at least September, but the best the mayor has been able to offer is a pilot program by the end of the year. We understand that there are complexities involved, but don't the present circumstances argue for accelerating the process? After Mr. Puente's stories ran, the mayor promised to start posting information about police brutality settlements online and to consider ending a practice that barred those receiving settlements from discussing their cases publicly. The first is sort-of done, the latter not at all. Baltimore police said last fall that they would phase out use of the kinds of vans that were used to transport Gray, but that has not yet happened.

Meanwhile, it's not clear that Mr. Batts' reform message is even getting through to his own department. Last year, a city surveillance camera captured footage of an officer beating a man at a crowded North Avenue bus stop. The camera operator flagged the incident the night it happened, and both the department's Internal Affairs division and the state's attorney's office knew about it, yet the officer remained on the streets for two months until the victim's lawyer obtained the footage and released it to the media. A department order to secure suspects with seat belts in the back of police vans was emailed to officers just three days before Freddie Gray was placed, handcuffed and shackled, face-down on the floor of one. What are we to make of the Fraternal Order of Police's excuse for its members' failure to follow the rule that many officers probably didn't read the email?

Ms. Mosby's indictment of the six officers may have momentarily lowered the temperature in the public outrage over aggressive police tactics. What the outcome of those cases will be and how the public will react, we can't know. But unless the mayor and commissioner take some concrete steps soon — putting cameras on officers or putting them in vans, for example — the outrage will come back, sooner or later. The protesters are demanding justice for Freddie Gray, but what they really want goes much deeper than that.