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A year of change in Baltimore

In April of last year, revolution was in the air.

The arrest of Freddie Gray on April 12, 2015, and his death a week later sparked an uprising that energized lifelong activists and created new activists. It pushed conversations about police practices, structural racism and violence, and inequity of resources that had been taking place for years among advocates and academics into the mainstream.

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The spasms of violence on April 25 and 27 last year drew misleading national media coverage, but the energy, ideas and commitments that came out of the weeks of protest and organizing will be far more important for Baltimore's future. If harnessed properly, the uprising could end up saving many lives.

A year later, it's fair to ask: Has anything changed?

The answer is "yes," although the gains are vulnerable, the change is slow, and there is much that still needs to be done. So what has changed?

For one thing, the uprising sparked the biggest overhaul in local government in recent memory. Police chief Anthony Batts was fired as a result of his handling of the unrest and replaced with Kevin Davis, who supports reforming Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights — long a demand of police critics — and has stepped up community policing, launched a Baltimore history and culture training program for all officers, and is working with Open Society Institute-Baltimore (OSI) and the city's health department to establish the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which will allow officers to divert drug users into treatment instead of arresting them.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, widely criticized for her handling of the uprising, opted not to seek re-election, as did six of 15 City Council members. Mayoral and council candidates frequently discussed structural racism, equitable development, and police and criminal justice reform — issues that got scant attention in previous election years. On April 26, a year and seven days after Freddie Gray died, more than 130,000 Baltimoreans voted in the primary election — a 65 percent increase from the last mayoral primary — and state Sen. Catherine Pugh won the Democratic nomination. Democrats nominated eight new candidates for City Council — in addition to the six who opted not to run, two incumbents lost — setting the stage for the youngest and most reform-oriented council in a generation.

Also, as a result of the outpouring of activism and energy that came with the uprising, new and resurgent coalitions and leaders emerged. Baltimore United for Change (BUC) connected the efforts of several existing groups — including Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, CASA and Baltimore Algebra Project — to focus on policy changes and building community-based institutions. The No Boundaries Coalition connected community organizations, schools and churches to advocate for safer streets, police accountability, access to healthy food and opportunities for young people. We at OSI-Baltimore, in response to the uprising, created the Baltimore Justice Fund to improve police accountability and police-community relations and reduce the number of Baltimoreans in the criminal justice system.

And the uprising has already led to significant policy changes. As a direct result of calls for police reform, Maryland's General Assembly this year changed the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, for the first time bringing civilians into the trial review board, limiting the length of time accused officers can wait before speaking to investigators, and providing new funding for community policing and incentives for officers to live where they work.

The General Assembly also passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, prioritizing drug treatment over prison, improving parole practices and doing away with racially unjust mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Legislators also overrode Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a bill to allow Marylanders convicted of a felony to vote in elections once they have been released from prison, potentially adding 40,000 ex-offenders to the voter rolls.

Also, after Freddie Gray's death, the Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. The results haven't been released, but the BPD has already hired a full-time chief of compliance. In cities like Cincinnati and Ferguson, such federal investigations have been important tools for reform.

But these changes are limited and vulnerable — many have yet to be implemented. It's too soon to declare that momentum has shifted, too soon to sit back and watch changes develop. We know that real, institutional change requires constant pressure.

One year later, we still have a lot of work to do, but the work has begun. Rest in power, Freddie Gray.

Diana Morris is director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore. Her email is diana.morris@opensocietyfoundations.org.

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