Dr. Ben Carson, the retired Hopkins neurosurgeon who announced his presidential campaign this week, returned to Baltimore on Thursday to tell community leaders here that the way to relieve tensions with police and help impoverished neighborhoods is to fix the nation's economy.
Carson, who on Monday entered the rapidly growing field of candidates seeking the Republican nomination, largely sidestepped direct questions about police cameras and the high rate of incarceration in African American communities -- suggesting that reducing taxes and regulations would restart an economic engine that would benefit everyone.
"The economy has a lot to do with that," Carson said when asked specifically about policing.
"Most of the people that I have heard from in the political arena, they say, 'one of the big solutions to our problems is we have to remove the entitlements,'" Carson said. "And I say, no, what you have to do is fix the economy. ... When people have viable options, that's when you start pulling entitlements."
Carson, a 63-year-old Florida resident who has never before run for office, spent nearly two hours taking questions from a few dozen community members, faith leaders and a handful of reporters packed into a conference room at the Bilingual Church of Baltimore east of Armistead Gardens -- on the other side of the city from where the riots took place last week.
The former Baltimore County resident, who had a celebrated career leading the pediatric neurosurgery department at Johns Hopkins Hospital, weighed directly into one issue: Whether Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby overreached in charging the six officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, who died from an injury sustained while in police custody.
"I probably wouldn't have charged them to that degree," Carson told the group. "But then again, I'm not a lawyer."
Carson touted school choice as a way to address beleaguered inner-city schools and he argued for giving patients vouchers to pay for medical care rather than relying on Medicaid. He suggested teaching young black students about the contributions African Americans have made to the country's development so that they can be inspired to achieve.
"Once you get into the penal system it gets really hard to get out of it," he said. "That's why we need to get to them before that happens."
In an address at a Maryland Right to Life banquet in Woodlawn late Thursday, Carson stuck mainly to a discussion of the many life-saving procedures he had performed at Hopkins -- including one involving a fetus who was later born healthy.
"We need in this country right now to develop some real courage -- courage of conviction," Carson said. "We need to think for ourselves and we need to understand that even the president of the United States cannot define who we are.
Carson saw his political star rise after he delivered a fiery address at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in 2013. He criticized President Barack Obama's policies a few feet from the president at the traditionally nonpartisan event. Talk of a possible White House run began circulating soon after.
Carson faces significant challenges in his campaign. Among them will distinguishing himself from other conservatives in the race, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida as well as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Other prominent GOP figures, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are also expected to run.
Though he lacks political experience, Carson arguably has the best personal story of any candidate. Born into poverty in Detroit, Carson initially struggled academically. But he went on to graduate from Yale and the University of Michigan's medical school.
At 33, he was named director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins, the youngest person to lead a major division at the institution. He won international acclaim in 1987 when he became the first surgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head.
His first book, "Gifted Hands," was made into a television movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. In the book, Carson describes how he overcame early struggles with school and anger through a love of reading and faith.