After another violent weekend in Baltimore when 15 people were shot including a 2-year-old baby, I couldn't help but reflect on how far we have come, or rather gone since the riots and unrest of 2015.
I attended a community meeting in West Baltimore last week that made it clear we are not making much progress. Though timelines are being met, initiatives are being created and policies are being re-written, the streets of the neighborhoods where the whole thing started are still suffering and the epicenter of it all; the historic Pennsylvania Avenue corridor is worse than it has ever been.
I was at the meeting to present about an upcoming forum and discuss how community members can engage in the process of structuring policies and training curriculum that will help transform the Baltimore Police Department and consequently make for a safer city. The agenda had me scheduled to speak after the monthly report by the Neighborhood Services Officer, discussing what has happened in the district over the past month and comparing that to the statistics from the same time a year ago. For the most part there was no noted change in the monthly numbers, up one in this category down one in another. But one thing the NSO said dictated the course of the meeting: There were three homicides.
The deaths occurred in front of a local establishment, and the owner was there to voice what she considered urgent and desperate concerns. She spoke harshly about the blatant drug activity that happens along her block, the lack of support merchants receive from the police and their representatives, how property managers are not held accountable for what happens on their grounds and how, of course, "everybody" sees what's going on around here and "ain't nobody even trying to stop it."
The immediate rebuttal from the officer was, essentially, "since we have this Consent Decree, we aren't allowed to even tell people to move along." It was basically the same conversation we were having in our neighborhoods before anyone would recognize the name Freddie Grey, just now there's the insertion of the term "consent decree" to justify the inaction.
I soon found myself facilitating a decades-old conversation. It's time for our city to collaboratively define our individual and organizational roles and responsibilities to help keep our communities safe. Though the business owner was clearly disgusted with what happens in front her business, when asked if she has she called the police, her reply ran the gamut of, "they ain't going to do nothing" to "y'all know what's going on" and ending with a heartbreaking, "why would we even call the police" when "y'all are out here killing black people?"
As the discussion progressed into a back and forth Q and A of: "Did you call the police?" Answered by: "the police are parked on the street." Followed up by: "if [the officer is] watching what goes on and not doing anything, did you call his supervisor?" And then: "How would I know who his supervisor is?"
We eventually wound up at the question, "Who do we call when the police don't do their job?"
It still remains unanswered. Who polices the police? It is up to the citizens to demand accountability from those who are paid with our tax dollars to protect our streets, as well as those who share common space in our neighborhoods.
Each of us should ask ourselves those same questions I asked the group to ignite a conversation about responsibility that this city consistently avoids.
First: How do we expect to change the dynamic in our community if we don't proactively inform the authorities on what and where things are happening?
Second: How can we expect people to come forward with information when they have to live in these neighborhoods?
Until we first create safe space for these difficult conversations and commit to change, our city will continue to suffer these traumas.
Ray C. Kelly (firstname.lastname@example.org) chaired the Community Oversight Task Force and is the principal at the Citizens Policing Project.