Since Freddie Gray...What Has Changed In The BPD?

Apr 28, 2016

April 22, 2015 protester at the western district police station
Credit Mary Rose Madden

Even before the riots broke out in Baltimore, tensions were high near the western district police station.  The western district is where Freddie Gray lived, where he was arrested.

Hundreds chanted no justice no peace at a demonstration outside the station after Gray’s died from injuries sustained while in police custody. They were furious, they wanted answers.

Shantrise Martin, who lives in Gray’s neighborhood, said the way cops treat them is humiliating. “They hate us so much.  Why?!”

Protesters – many of them from Baltimore’s poorest African American communities - recalled stories of police brutality, harassment, or misconduct they’d experienced or witnessed.

People said the city was slow to respond to the anger - and the riots.

“Where’s our Mayor?” demanded an irate Sheila Conway, a mother from Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, at one demonstration. “She supposed to be here! She ain’t here.”

Since then, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake--who is not running for re-election – has fired the police commissioner and hired Kevin Davis as the city’s top cop. And state Senator Catherine Pugh won the Democratic nomination to succeed here, which, in heavily Democratic Baltimore, is almost as good as winning the election.

Davis, who was at Pugh’s primary night party, openly criticizes his department’s old policing strategy – one in which officers arrested first and asked questions later. It left thousands with criminal records even when their cases were dropped.

“Zero tolerance policing didn’t work and arguably lead us to the unrest in 2015,” he said.

Davis says he wants to stay tough on crime, but he wants to police “smarter”.

He says he’ll institute new training, best practices in recruiting and community policing. Cops will start wearing body cameras soon. And he says he wants to overhaul the traditional hiring process.

“They look at criminal backgrounds, your education, your capacity to physically do this job,” he explained. “But we don’t go far enough in measuring someone’s capacity for emotional intelligence.”  

Davis says he want to change the of the department. The majority of Baltimore cops don’t live in the city. So, he’s organized a Baltimore History Speakers series to boost cultural sensitivity. He’s also pushing to get officers out of their cars and walking a beat when they can.

Officer Zachary Novak, who’s been on the Baltimore force for four years, says “walking foot” helps fight crime and build relationships.

But many activists say there are systemic problems in the Baltimore Police Department that go much deeper than foot patrol and community policing.

Adam Jackson, of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, says you can change the culture of the force by changing the way bad cops are investigated and disciplined.

“It doesn’t matter if we have officer friendly on a foot patrol half of his shift and he knows people in the community if there are structural issues with how we hold police accountable,” he says.

Jackson’s group fought for police to put civilians on internal police trial boards and to open those investigations to the public during the recent Maryland General Assembly session. In the end, the General Assembly voted to let each jurisdiction decide whether it would allow civilians on the disciplinary boards – and whether to allow them a vote. 

Activists say they’ll keep screaming until they’re heard. The Police Commissioner says fundamental change is coming.  But right now, he’s trying to force officers to see themselves as guardians instead of warriors.