Here's a novel thought: When was the last time you heard of kids in Baltimore rushing to spend an afternoon at their local police station because it offered free Wi-Fi? Or of neighborhood activists organizing a food pantry, reading room or rec center there? However implausible those scenarios may sound, they may soon be reality.
In the year since Freddie Gray's death, change admittedly has come slowly to the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where he grew up. The community is still depressed, blighted by vacant and abandoned houses and struggling with high rates of poverty, unemployment and crime.
Yet there are also bright spots in this picture, including the neighborhood's soon-to-be refurbished district police station. A coalition of local business leaders is transforming that formerly forbidding structure into a light-filled, multi-purpose community gathering place. When completed, the $2.4 million project will represent the kind of smart, public-private partnerships that Baltimore needs more of in Sandtown-Winchester and in neighborhoods across the city.
During last year's unrest, the district police station in Sandtown-Winchester was the site of several tense confrontations that saw angry residents gather outside the building while police hunkered down within. The station, a dilapidated red brick structure from the 1950s surrounded by fences and jersey walls, was more like an armed camp in hostile territory than a trusted neighborhood institution, and it became a perfect symbol of the deep well of mutual suspicion that festered between police and local residents.
That's when a group of local businessmen led by former Under Armour executive Scott Plank, regional Wells Fargo president Andrew Bertamini, venture capitalist David Warnock and others decided to do something about the city's perpetually troubled police-community relations. They couldn't dictate police department policy, but they could spruce up the Sandtown-Winchester police station so that it could be opened it to the public for community projects, youth programs and other neighborhood activities.
The city's movers and shakers adopted the idea because they saw it as one way to close the divide between police and the community. It makes sense not only in terms of making better use of the space but also of healing the deep divisions between officers and local residents.
They also thought it would send a powerful signal about their commitment as business leaders to help address the deep-rooted problems revealed by the reaction to Mr. Gray's death and to encourage other companies to chip in as well. Transforming police stations like this was one of the better ideas Mr. Warnock advanced during his mayoral campaign, and we're glad to see it come to fruition.
The renovated facility will have secure locker rooms for officers, remodeled restrooms, dedicated conference rooms for interviewing witnesses and suspects and upgraded training space and equipment. In addition, part of the facility will be open to the public for community meetings and activities, and it will also offer outdoor seating, free Wi-Fi access and a playground for neighborhood children.
These improvements are all privately funded with the goal of encouraging police and local residents to interact with one another in nonconfrontational ways that aren't focused on law enforcement but rather on establishing relationships of trust between officers and ordinary citizens, especially local youth. And for the record, the complaint that this amounts to the city pouring its resources into police stations and jails rather than schools doesn't wash. Do the critics realize the city is in the midst of an unprecedented $1.1 billion school construction program?
We are under no illusion that fixing up a single police station in one neighborhood is going solve all Sandtown-Winchester's problems, let alone those that have afflicted Baltimore as a whole for generations. But it's something that can be done, fairly quickly and cheaply, that has both practical and symbolic benefits. We applaud the business leaders who believed in the city enough to try it. We hope we'll soon see more projects like it.