“We need a change,” former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a July 2015 press conference, where she announced the dismissal of then Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts. She had fired him in response to an increase in homicides following the death of Freddie Gray.
This month marks the three-year anniversary of Gray’s death from a severe spinal cord injury sustained while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), which sparked the Baltimore Uprising, a series of peaceful and violent protests in the City. None of the officers involved in his arrest were found criminally responsible for his death, which was ruled a homicide.
Over the last three years, many have wondered if the BPD has changed and whether that change has benefited the community.
Since 2015, three different commissioners have led the BPD. A 2016 Department of Justice (DOJ) report found that there was a pattern of unconstitutional police practices that unjustly targeted black citizens. This year, a federal court exposed the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) as a criminal operation.
Homicide rates have risen with a record 342 in 2017 alone. Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Batts’ successor Kevin Davis in January due to his failure to reduce violence and replaced him with then Deputy Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, a 30-year BPD veteran.
De Sousa has repeatedly stated that his first priority is reducing violent crime. At his February swearing-in ceremony, he said community-oriented initiatives will play a pivotal role.
“It’s the command’s goal not to lock up a single kid in Baltimore City,” De Sousa said. “I pledge here today that community is going to be the most critical part of the crime fight in 2018.”
While some Baltimore residents agree that community initiatives will reduce crime, they question whether the BPD should or even could spearhead such measures in the wake of its scandals.
Following Gray’s death in 2015, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ launched an investigation into the BPD and confirmed allegations of widespread abuse and misconduct toward black Baltimoreans.
In the resulting 2016 report, the DOJ cited multiple unconstitutional and unnecessarily violent stops, searches and arrests of black citizens. Baltimore City and the BPD agreed in January 2017 to make significant reforms per a legally binding consent decree with the DOJ.
The decree’s stipulations include incorporating community oversight and engagement, promoting de-escalation tactics, ensuring safe transport for arrestees and instituting trainings on racial bias, constitutional rights and interactions with juveniles.
In an email to The News-Letter, BPD spokesman T.J. Smith listed several changes that the department has undertaken.
“All officers are now equipped with Body-Worn Cameras. Police wagons are equipped with cameras and have been reconfigured,” he wrote. “An overtime abuse unit has been established and other mechanisms are in place to track overtime.”
The U.S. district judge responsible for enforcing the consent decree, however, has questioned whether the City and the BPD are capable of meeting its stipulations.
Graduate student Corey Payne, who was a co-president of Students for a Democratic Society as a Hopkins undergraduate, shares this concern.
“There was hope with the consent decree that emerged,” Payne said. “But it seems like there haven’t really been any real changes that have come out of that, at least not real changes that are affecting the way policing is perceived by and felt by the most policing-oppressed neighborhoods in Baltimore.”
Last November, after Detective Sean Suiter was killed in Harlem Park, the BPD locked down and occupied the West Baltimore neighborhood for six days, leaving many residents unable to enter without showing ID.
Adam Jackson, CEO of the community activist organization Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said he understands why the BPD took such “extreme” action in response to the murder of a detective but does not believe it was justified.
“It shows the contempt that the Baltimore Police Department has for black people,” Jackson said.
He noted that the BPD does not respond in the same manner when civilians are killed.
“Some black folks’ reaction was, ‘Well, if they can act this way to one police officer getting shot, then why are they not acting this same way when we’re killed either by gun violence in our own community or by police?’” Jackson said.
The BPD established an Independent Review Board earlier this month to assess whether the actions taken following Suiter’s death comply with BPD policies and procedures.
Both Jackson and Payne said that while they have not experienced police brutality firsthand, they have witnessed and heard accounts of incidents.
“I’ve watched the BPD treat black friends of mine in a very problematic and racist way over something as silly as a noise complaint,” Payne said. “I watched a Baltimore police officer in a cop car run over a protester. I watched a Baltimore police officer pull out his club in a group of protesters and swing on several of the protesters.”
Jackson argued that the BPD as an institution is ultimately culpable.
“It has nothing to do with individual people or how they treat individuals. It has more to do with how systems are arranged,” Jackson said. “I don’t hate cops. I despise how systems are operating and how they conspire to brutalize people.”
The BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) was formed in 2007 as an elite unit dedicated to reducing the number of guns on Baltimore streets.
Members of the GTTF were given an unconventional degree of freedom to essentially use any methods necessary to combat gun violence. Several of the officers involved stole guns and drugs from citizens and later resold them on the street.
In February, the federal case against the GTTF ended with two officers being convicted of and six pleading guilty to racketeering among other charges. Only one member of the now disbanded GTTF was not indicted.
Payne and Jackson noted how the scandal confirmed allegations of misconduct within the BPD.
“It’s the type of corruption and oppressive policing that people in heavily-policed neighborhoods have been talking about for years and years,” Payne said.
Stephen Morgan, the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Education at Hopkins, said corruption within the BPD was on some level to be expected.
Morgan is currently conducting research on policing in Baltimore.
“In every organization, there are bad apples. The question is: how many are there, and it certainly does seem the Gun Trace Task Force was probably uniformly rotten apples,” Morgan said.
He believes assessing corruption within the BPD is critical but is not sure how realistic it is to expect the threat to be eradicated.
“I hope five years from now we can look back and understand the scope of the problem,” Morgan said. “I want to have confidence in the police force, and so I hope they’re as good as people want them to be, but I can’t say that they are.”
Jackson asserted that the GTTF took advantage of the divide between the police and Baltimore residents.
“Black people who are from poor communities are always targets of police harassment and many times white folks and white institutions and white corporations don’t believe that,” Jackson said. “In many cases, we’re just seen as savages who are killing each other, selling drugs, et cetera... There are police officers who are looking to exploit that and so that’s what the Gun Trace Task Force to me represents.”
Junior Chijioke Oranye, a Baltimore Scholar, thinks the disconnect between police and residents struggling to make ends meet must be addressed.
“A lot of it is folks from East and West Baltimore that aren’t educated, that don’t have stable housing and that are either in gangs or just commit crimes to be able to get money [do so] because they don’t have that stable source of income,” Oranye said.
Oranye discussed the need for more training for police officers.
“How do you make police much more aware, much more understanding and much more communicative towards folks who break the law?”
What can be done?
For Jackson, Payne and Oranye, the BPD cannot be relied upon to lead the way in improving conditions for Baltimore residents.
Payne believes community organizing should replace the BPD entirely.
“It’s just riddled with institutional and structural problems, and we need a clean slate to start over,” Payne said. “I think it’s entirely possible that a new police could be created that’s based on more community values.”
Jackson, whose organization is dedicated to public policy advocacy, did not call abolishing the BPD. However, he believes conditions are improving because of civilian initiatives.
“The mythology that keeps being spread is that Baltimore’s never going to change, there’s no people here working for our community,” Jackson said. “The longer we repeat that lie, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Jackson expressed optimism about Baltimore’s future.
“We need to make sure that we’re connected with people [and] we’re all working to make change so that we can have hope.”
The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to requests for comment.