On The Watch, Part 3: Will Community Policing Efforts In Baltimore Include Everyone?

Sep 2, 2015

Wheelie Boy, Ying, and friends
Credit Mary Rose Madden/WYPR

On the some of the hottest days of this summer, 14-year-old LaAsia Griffin and her big brother Jamal popped a white canopy tent and set up penny candy, chips, and crackers for sale on two long tables at a busy stop light in West Baltimore's Poppleton Neighborhood.


Throughout the summer, the candy shop has made the teens a few hundred dollars.  It also, unexpectedly, put them in place to help one day when there was an emergency a few blocks over.  In the middle of the day, they heard a woman crying for help.

"She locked the keys in the car," Jamal says, "She was going to the back of the truck to get another child seat out to put in the backseat, but in the process she locked all the doors by mistake. And all the babies was locked in the car."

The mother had called the police, but she was frantic.  Jamal and his cousin went to help her, and 40 minutes later, just as they got the trunk popped and the windows down, the police finally showed up.  For Jamal it was an example of how some people in his community take care of each other:  because they have to.  Because where are the police when you really need them?

Jamal says in their community, calling the police is a crap shoot.

"They always say that the police is here for our safety, and for our support and help," he says.  "A lot of people are scared to call on them now."

But it wasn’t always this way, says LaAsia and Jamal's mom Nessa.  As recently as six months ago, before the riots, there were officers who reached out.

"They used to patrol this neighborhood – I know two of them, or three, and they was real nice.  Real nice.  I mean, they did they jobs, and weren't disrespectful, and asked us, 'Is everything okay round here?'" Nessa says.  "They wanted to know if anybody needed assistance.  They were gonna look out for us no matter what."

That's community policing in a nutshell: when officers get out of their cars and mix with the people they're trying to serve and protect.  It happens here in Baltimore – and doing a better job of it is one of the main goals of the city's new police commissioner.  But in neighborhoods like Nessa's, especially since the riots, it feels like a rarity.  And many people have given up on the police.

Filmed and edited by abeni nazeer
Broll footage from youtube video "Baltimore police ride-along taking a temperature in the western district"
Broll footage from youtube video: "Baltimore policing has changed since the riots"
"Baltimore bike life dirtbike capital wheel deal"
"Riding with 12 o clock boys from New York Times"
Music by jackboy toni: song title: Posted

"It’s a whole lot of people don’t even want to deal with them," she says.

Baltimore Police have new riot gear.  They have new training in how to manage stressful situations.  They have a new "war room" – a centralized spot for local investigators to collaborate with federal agencies and catch repeat offenders, the high level criminals.

But what's being done to help police-community relations?  To really deal with police misconduct, and the community's mistrust of police?

The monthly meeting of The Community Relations Council – or CRC – in each of the city's police districts is supposed to be one of the main opportunities for citizens to talk with the officers who police them, face-to-face, in a forum for solving problems.  At July's meeting in the Western District, there was a notable absence of young people.

The district's new major, Sheree Briscoe, took the mic and introduced herself to the older crowd.  Briscoe is the sixth commander of the Western in the past six years, and she's tasked with establishing a new relationship with the community.

But, about the most basic symbol of that change – officers getting out of their cars and engaging residents more – she says:  "That piece, I can tell you, will not change overnight."

Most of the citizens who've come to the meeting want to talk about the drugs, burglaries, and shootings on the rise this summer.  Briscoe tells them they can call on her as often as they need to.

But people who show up at a CRC typically know that already, says Kevin Davis, Baltimore's new police commissioner.

"Community relations councils across America, and it's not unique to Baltimore, are made up of the little church ladies," Davis says.  "And they're very, very important.  But they're the choir.  So we're always preaching to the choir....  That's a traditional outreach group for police departments, but we've missed the boat.  We need to up our game with our community policing strategies."

Davis says true community policing means getting his officers to break out of their comfort zones, to acknowledge their shortcomings – and that's a huge challenge.

"We train people for six and a half months, for the very worst-case scenarios in our profession," he says.  "But throughout a police officer's day – and it can be in the most challenged community in the city or in the country – we deal with far more people who just want to speak to a police officer."

"We have to do a better job at actually training people how to do that," Davis continues.

"We have to recognize when someone's in crisis, and then deal with that moment of crisis accordingly, and without the cynicism, and without the sarcasm, and without the disrespect."

One of Davis’s first big tests as commissioner is the current standoff between Baltimore police and one of the groups they find hard to reach: the city's young, and mostly poor and black, dirt bike riders, known as the "wheelie boys."

Straddling a red and white bike, and sporting red gloves, gold teeth, tattoos on his arms, Ying cuts an imposing figure.  He says police target him and other riders because they look a certain way.  But, he concedes, he and his friends make the mistake of profiling cops, too, often expecting the worst from them. Ying says, they could all come together on the issue of riding their dirt bikes through the city.

"Right now we fighting for a park, so we can have a certain area we can ride, and have a certain area for the audience just to watch," he says. "If [police officers] want to come to me in a good approach, I will talk to them.  I will give them hints to what to do to make it better for us."

Davis says he’s not going the "zero tolerance route" – he wants to collaborate with the riders and find a solution.

But there's more to it, say Ying and his friends.  As he talks, other young men approach.  Jackboy Dummy, a 30-something friend, says the way police routinely talk to them is degrading.

"So now when they pull up on us, they tell us shit like: 'Go on your porch,' or 'Go in your backyard," he says.

He says it seems like the police don't care to know them.  But according to Davis, Dummy and his friends are exactly the population police most need to hear from – and the one they’re missing through avenues like that community meeting.

Dummy says he never hears about such forums – if he did, he would like to participate.

"I don’t really hear nothing about nothing being done as far as changing what they doing.  Now you might find a bunch of stuff about changing what’s going on out here.  But as far as they actions? Nah. I don’t see nothing transpiring as far as changing what they doing,[sic]" he says, looking at the group of young men gathered around.

"We need to be heard," he says. 

This year-long special series On the Watch is funded by the Bendit Family Foundation, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, The Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Foundation, and the Open Society Institute – Baltimore.