“It almost feels like 1968 all over again.”
That was how one of my neighbors described the situation in Sandtown-Winchester, where protests have taken place nearly every day after the death of Freddie Gray. Gray died last week after he was allegedly subjected to a “rough ride”—an unsanctioned practice wherein prisoners transported in police custody are deliberately un-seatbelted and subjected to unsafe driving meant to batter them. My family and I have lived in this neighborhood for five years as part of our vocation with New Song Community Church and have come to hear many stories of humiliating police stops and rights violated from my friends. The past day of rioting and looting has brought more shame and fear to an already battered community. However, even before this all happened, the peaceful protests ratcheted up the underlying tension (and the already-heavy police presence) here: we’ve spent the past week wondering if some troublemakers will turn the protests violent and make our community the collateral damage, or if police will use the heightened fear as an opportunity to commit more injustice. Those who have lived through the last half of the 20th century are especially wary and worried for their sons and grandsons. Those who have been working for changes in how the police relate to our neighborhood are incredibly discouraged by the violence that has muddied the message protesters were trying to communicate.
The increased media attention adds another challenge as megaphones and cameras go to the most aggressive voices. No one who has been working here for years wants to wrestle their way into prominence, but Baltimore activists had to release a video advising outside activists to “get a check up from the neck up” on deferring to those from the city. Local pastors are taking the lead, but opinions on the wisest course of action vary, and even those who have experienced police brutality are hesitant to join in protests with a blanket “anti-police” sentiment—so much so that local youth helping to organize the protest showed up in force to proclaim “let justice bring change” to counter the common “no justice, no peace” chant. Few outside of the neighborhood leaders appreciated the difference, however, when those were eventually given the megaphone and quickly went home at dusk, before rocks started flying towards the police. Baltimore’s anti-brutality activists and local journalists have been getting more attention for their excellent work, which has been going on long before Freddie Gray was in the national spotlight, and they deserve it. For the most part, though, a positive vision for what policing ought to be in communities like Sandtown is still missing from much of the public discourse.
The State of the Debate
Only a handful of conservatives have much to say about what policing ought to be like (although there is some hope that a Right On Crime approach will continue to find success in practice and support among voters.) Mostly, it seems like conservatives would rather go back to the era of “zero tolerance” policing under Martin O’Malley, when up to 100,000 arrests in a city of 636,000 people were made, precipitating a successful lawsuit from the NAACP and the ACLU. Despite costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives, decades after declaring a War on Drugs, it’s fairly safe to say that drugs are winning or have won. (Baltimore, to its credit, has put great effort into a less punitive drug court system that addresses some of this reality.) Conservatives also generally underestimate the degree to which police brutality is systemic, not anecdotal and have yet to commit to any program that holds police accountable. One of my patients who lives in the neighborhood showed me scars from his encounters with the police and described them as a “necessary evil” to keep drug dealers in check—often through stealing drugs or money from them. Stories of corruption are just frequent enough to make any police encounter a roll of the dice—everyone acknowledges that there are good cops who care about justice and will treat you fairly, but you never know if it’s one of them pulling you over.
Liberals, on the other hand, have done far better at positing specific reforms, but while the unequal conditions that foment violence are unarguably rooted in structural racism and many incidents of violence against African-Americans feature individuals who are unabashedly racist, police brutality runs much deeper. It’s not clear that more black cops will decrease police shootings, for example, and Baltimore is a city with a black Mayor and Police Commissioner who have only recently started to take baby steps towards more equitable policing.
Furthermore, hammering the legitimate issues of structural racism doesn’t appreciate the fact that it isn’t yuppies in waterfront neighborhoods calling the cops to clear the corners, or going to community meetings asking police to do more—it’s the people in these neighborhoods who want to feel safe and don’t want to live in fear of the violence that drug dealing brings. The left also strongly emphasizes alleviating the structural injustices that created and sustain poverty in neighborhoods like Sandtown (which is crucial), but violent perpetrators aren’t rats in a cage who kill less often when they’re less poor; they’re human beings who are part and parcel of the structural injustice that other community members experience even as they often fall victim to it. Violent cops and violent gang members both contribute to an atmosphere that perpetuates poverty; helping them change requires a change in policing that includes consequences for violence.
Baltimore Police: The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly
The interim report (PDF) from the President’s Council on 21st-Century Policing is clear: “Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community.” Sadly, the police still resemble an “occupying force” to many, and the frequency with which the power of the badge appears to corrupt officers is disturbing. The Baltimore Sun’s series on settlements for police brutality shows that the level of accountability for officers who unnecessarily harm citizens is inadequate. When Joe Crystal, a Baltimore police officer, tried to report a beating that his fellow officer gave, he found a dead rat on his car, showing that the departmental culture is interested more in self-preservation than self-improvement. Everyone complains about the “stop snitching” culture that allows murderers to walk free; the tight fraternity among police officers that allows them to do a very difficult job is unfortunately also responsible for protecting the “bad apples” police brutality is often blamed on. It also doesn’t help that the local police union compared protestors to a “lynch mob” simply because they called for the arrest of the officers implicated in Freddie Gray’s arrest. These widespread practices continue because judges, prosecutors and police officers want to get violent criminals off the streets, but say injustice and deviation from procedure is the only way to justice.
Police presence in neighborhoods like Sandtown is meant to prevent violence, bring criminals to justice, and help people feel safe on their own streets. While crime is still down overall (following national trends), folks in Sandtown don’t feel any safer—shootings still occur with alarming frequency and few walk around after dark. If anything, the police contribute to a greater atmosphere of fear after so many residents can recall being pulled over, roughed up, searched, or arrested for minor crimes or no crime. One oft-suggested reform is a residency requirement for cops, as nearly half of Baltimore’s police force (like many others) lives outside of the city—some even live outside the state! Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that such requirements improve trust with the community. How, then, can we change policing to decrease violence without causing this much harm?
The steps that Baltimore’s leaders are taking should be acknowledged—pairing mental health workers professionals with officers and encouraging police to volunteer in communities are big steps, and while the rhetoric around body cameras in Baltimore has been full of confusion, we can reasonably expect that at some point they’ll be implemented and they will probably have some effect (though it is uncertain how positive) on policing. Baltimore has also supported innovative programs like a community policing effort, Safe Streets (which uses former gang members to engage with people on the street and decrease violence) and Operation Ceasefire, which has seen great results in other cities by focusing on violent offenders and providing case management to high-risk individuals. The biggest issue with these so far is that they’re still niche programs—the community policing initiative is still only operating in one district, and there are deep concerns about underfunding CeaseFire and Safe Streets. Expanding these efforts with a commensurate decrease in stops like the ones Freddie Gray experienced would go a long way in making policing in Baltimore more effective and less harmful.
The citizens of Baltimore are tired of hearing one thing come from the mouth of politicians and another from the charging sheets and arrest reports that reveal routine violations of policy. Emphasizing adherence to procedures—and effectively disciplining officers who don’t follow procedures instead of simply paying their victims—is undoubtedly the first step. The current situation (including a federal civil rights investigation) gives Baltimore’s police department the opportunity to demonstrate consequences for officers who don’t follow the rules, but this level of scrutiny must be applied across the department. A local coalition in Sandtown has been advocating for a stronger Civilian Review Board since long before the current situation erupted—such a board is a crucial piece of the reform puzzle, but it has seen minimal support from Baltimore’s leadership. What my neighbors want from the police department is transparency and accountability—with clear delineations of what their rights and officer’s responsibilities are, as well as consequences for those who break the rules.
It would be foolish to look at policy and the behaviors that we want to produce apart from the internal motivations of the people who make up our police forces. Based on the foul language that many of my neighbors report hearing when stopped, there are probably enough racists running around with a badge. As one of my neighbors told me, “When they make a stop, they see a suspect, not a human being.” A residency requirement is no substitute for people who care about the communities that they police, and the strength of many incompletely implemented programs in Baltimore’s police department is that they foster relationships between officers and their communities, giving both groups opportunities to learn from one another and hold another accountable. What people have said over and over as I have talked to them over the past week—and the past several years—is that they want to be able to communicate with the police and hear from them, person to person.
Good policies are needed to flush out bad apples and reward just behavior, but the best policies are the ones that don’t allow prejudice to hide inside a car or behind a desk. The most poisonous attitudes will have to be rooted out and the people holding them may need to be fired, but we must hold out hope that by interacting face-to-face with the communities that they police, officers who have learned to relate with anger and mistrust can have relationships that forge trust with the people they are sworn to protect. In turn, these communities will gladly support them instead of running away.
As I write, more destruction is unfolding across Baltimore—precipitated by police showing up in riot gear to a bus stop where students gather every day to get to and from school. As usual, the efforts to protect aren’t making us feel any safer. From Jim Crow to the War on Drugs, police have been incentivized to deny justice in support of an unattainable goal—but with an honest assessment of failures and a serious commitment to agreed-upon objectives, Sandtown can be a safer place. The community here will not give up fighting for our streets no matter what happens over the next few days. When the cameras leave and the fires stop burning, we’ll still be doing our best to work with the police and contribute to their efforts to make our community safer together.
Matthew Loftus lives in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore and works as a family physician. He is a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy and is releasing a novel about doctors behaving badly chapter-by-chapter at Trousseau Syndrome.