Blame Rises With Body Count in Baltimore
It’s been two months since violent protests burned a path of destruction through some of Baltimore’s worst neighborhoods. While some sense of normalcy has returned to the streets, the legacy of Freddie Gray—whose death in police custody sparked the unrest—remains a defining feature of the landscape.
On walls and marquees across West Baltimore, Gray’s name shares space with signs calling for an end to the rash of violence that has plagued the city since May. A large mural depicting Gray’s likeness at the corner of Fulton & Presbury in his neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester calls on police to “Stop Killing Us” while making a plea to the community for peace and love in 2015.
In June, all six Baltimore Police Department officers who were indicted in Gray’s death pleaded not guilty to multiple charges and were ordered by a judge to stand trial on October 13 for crimes ranging from second-degree murder to misconduct in office. A leaked autopsy report obtained this week by The Baltimore Sun shows that Gray died from a “high intensity” injury likely sustained as he was driven around unrestrained in the back of a police van.
In the areas hardest hit by the rioting, dozens of looted stores remain boarded up. Some may never reopen. When asked for their thoughts on what happened, many residents respond angrily, recounting how police stood by and watched their neighborhood burn.
Some black Baltimoreans who are old enough to remember the last time the city erupted into flames—in 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—say it’s time to turn those emotions toward reconciliation.
“People are getting tired,” said Sylvia, 57—who sported a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt last Sunday at Baltimore’s annual African American Festival, and identified herself as a member of the Empowerment Temple AME Church, where Gray’s funeral was held. “Right now we are trying to bring people together to work with police to try to heal and stop the violence.”
Nowhere is the need for that more acute than in West Baltimore, where shootings and murders have reached record highs. Since the start of May there have been more than 60 murders in the city, many of them clustered in the Western District within a two-mile radius of the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues—where the charred shell of a looted CVS marks the epicenter of April’s unrest.
At the beginning of June shootings were up more than 82 percent in 2015 over the prior year, and homicides have been hovering at 50 percent above 2014 levels, according to the most recent Comstat data. The bloodletting has caused simmering tensions between the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore’s Fraternal Order of Police—problems that began before Gray’s killing, with the mayor’s push to weaken Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights—to boil over.
Gun violence is endemic to Baltimore, but the recent crime wave has coincided with such a stark drop in arrests (90 percent in some neighborhoods) that Mayor Rawlings-Blake has accused police of orchestrating a work slowdown to protest her administration’s handling of the Gray protests.
The union accuses the mayor of issuing a “stand down” order that allowed the riots to escalate out of control—a charge she has steadfastly denied—and is seeking internal police documents and communication transcripts so it can conduct its own “After Action Report” on the protests.
(Tuesday police officials acknowledged that they instructed officers to prioritize life over property during the riots but say the order was to “hold the line," not to “stand down.”)
At a news conference on June 17 the mayor threatened to discipline officers who weren’t pulling their weight.
“As long as they plan to cash their paycheck, my expectation is that they work,” she said.
The day before, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and FOP President Lieutenant Gene Ryan sparred in press releases over union allegations that police brass mishandled the protests and are intentionally withholding information from the FOP. Batts countered by calling the claims “inaccurate and misleading” and admonishing the union for exceeding its authority by intruding into day-to-day police operations.
Last Friday, Commissioner Batts fanned the flames even more with an op-ed calling out BPD officers who appeared in disguise in June on CNN to comment on the Gray riots and promising to crack down even harder on misconduct.
“Our reform efforts will very likely see more police officers arrested,” Batts wrote.
No one denies the BPD has suffered from a morale problem since the riots, but police leaders take issue with the idea that their officers are intentionally shirking their duty.
“The slowdown has nothing to do with what the mayor is saying,” said one BPD commander who asked to speak to The Daily Beast anonymously because he’s not permitted to talk to the media.
The 30-year veteran officer—who holds the rank of lieutenant—attributed the spike in crime to a sense of empowerment that resulted from the Gray affair rather than subordination.
“Whenever you have police officers get indicted the community always feels emboldened,” he said.
Back in Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood, residents seem to be in agreement with that interpretation, and some go so far as to echo the FOP in saying Mayor Rawlings-Blake was negligent in her handling of the riots.
While he waited to buy water ice from an elderly street vendor across from William Mcabee Park in Sandtown, Chris, a 37-year-old local, agreed that criminal elements in the community have become bolder since the April protests.
“People are getting killed here every week,” he said, laying the blame squarely at City Hall. “It’s the mayor’s fault, she told the police to stand down. She could have stopped this if she wanted to.”
As he talked, the vendor—who would not give his name—and another waiting customer both nodded in agreement. Chris said he expects the violence will continue into the summer months.
Asked why he thinks violent crime has spiked in the city since April, Corron—who is 14—said: “Because people know police aren’t gonna do anything.”
Keisha, a 30-year-old West Baltimore resident, said that police retreated from her neighborhood in the weeks after the April riots.
“They pulled back for a while but they’re starting to come back in now,” she said.
Yet one doesn’t get that sense driving the streets of West Baltimore. While scanner activity was brisk last weekend—with officers responding to calls in seemingly rapid-fire succession—there was little evidence that police are actively patrolling the streets, even in the highest crime areas. In the BPD’s defense, with the temperature in Baltimore now averaging above 80 at night, the darkened streets and alleys are teeming with so many people it’s difficult to comprehend what a proactive policing strategy might look like.
Detective Rashawn Strong, a BPD spokesperson, said the department has no formal plans to modify its tactics as summer officially begins, but said that operational changes are often made in the field in as circumstances dictate.
With a war of words between the FOP and the Commissioner heating up, and police leadership caught in the middle, one comes away with a sense that Baltimoreans are probably right in bracing for a long, hot, deadly summer—no matter who they decide to blame.