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WYPR Newsroom Series:On The Watch: Fixing the Fractured Relationship Between Baltimore's Police and Its CommunitiesUp With Neighborhoods: A Southwest Baltimore PartnershipRockets' Red Glare: the War, the Song, and their LegaciesDeconstructingVacantsSparrows Point: The Plan, The Cleanup, and The PromiseCommon Core: A Work In Progress

On The Watch, Part 2: How Will Baltimore Police Officers Respond To The Call For Help?

Mary Rose Madden

Three weeks before he was fired, Former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts held a meeting in a basketball court adjacent to a playground in West Baltimore. The community was invited to observe the meeting police were calling “community comstat”.

At least one deputy mayor and various City Hall department heads were there.  Batts wanted everyone to hear this discussion.  Each of the commanders for the city’s nine police districts gave updates - and Batts wanted them to brainstorm possible solutions.

But he really wanted to hear from the new commander of the Western Police District – that’s where Freddie Gray was last seen alive by his neighbors.  Acting Major Sheree Briscoe explained to the group that her district had a multitude of problems stemming from the drug trade.

The open air drug market surrounds a drug treatment facility and a daycare center, she said. The facility opens early in the morning, she explained, and addicts on their way to treatment as well as children being dropped off for day care must pass through the drug dealers The description was chilling.

The community comstat meeting in the playground took place almost eight weeks after Freddie Gray’s death, when crime started to spike in the city.  Ray Kelly from The No Boundaries Coalition in West Baltimore said Batts and city representatives were visiting this corner too late in the game. The people here are living in a warzone, he said, and no one is acting with any urgency.

"If someone was getting killed every day in Charles Village or Mount Vernon there would be all kinds of commitment from officers and supplemental funds," Kelly says.  But here in Sandtown, it’s "y'all gotta stop killing each other, black on black".

Now Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis touts a new measure called the "war room".  It acts as a command station for collaboration among federal agencies like the FBI and US Attorney’s Office and the city police department.  The people who work there are targeting violent repeat offenders and major crime groups.

But the "War Room" doesn’t sit right with Kelly.  The name is insensitive, he says, it’s a media show pony, and there are a lot of guns drawn on the streets by people not affiliated with gangs.

"I just feel like it has been a lot of wasted effort," Kelly says, "you’ve seen what works. It works in every community; foot patrols, visibility."

For two years, Kelly and his group have lobbied the Baltimore Police Department for beat cops walking their streets. They’d seen foot patrols in Mount Vernon – a prosperous, white neighborhood.  Kelly says they’d push and push – and finally win,–getting two foot posts in the Western Police District.  Crime would drop.  Then he says the foot patrols would go away and crime would rise again. 

They needed – and still do - a sustained presence, says Kelly, but they want a police presence that’s helpful rather than harassing. 

Kelly says it’s rare occasion to see a police officer chatting with someone like him. He says usually the interactions go more like they did a year ago when he approached an officer on foot patrol.

“I said, ‘How you doing? I’m Ray Kelly. I appreciate you guys.’ And I had this officer fold her arms and say, ‘I don’t shake hands’”.  Her attitude, Kelly says, was, “I don’t want to talk to these people.”’

Us vs. Them

Before he left the force, Commissioner Anthony Batts called police officers like that “part of the problem” on national news.  He told district patrol officers that they were required to spend at least 30 minutes of foot patrol during each shift – and to talk to the citizens in their district.  He told officers to keep a football in their cars and get out and play with people on the street if it was a quiet day.

But there aren’t many quiet days in Baltimore right now.  And there have been numerous reports of police not even responding to calls for help. 

It appears to many, that the police rank and file are bitter.

Officers said it felt like the city was against them during the Freddie Gray investigation, during the unrest, and after the six officers involved in his death were arrested.  At a recent press conference, Lt. Gene Ryan from the Fraternal Order of Police said the rank and file was put in the line of danger during the unrest.  More than 200 police officers were injured, he said.

“In addition to the bodily harm, the morale of the men and women of the police department has greatly suffered.”

In the union’s after action report of the riots, they said they were ill-equipped on many fronts – their gear didn’t work properly, many officers didn’t know to whom to report, and they say all arrests had to be approved by civilians in the department’s legal section.  The FOP said the rank and file was not getting the support they needed from city leadership. 

Interim Commissioner Kevin Davis appeared on WYPR just a day before that report came out.   He acknowledged the officers’ anxieties “about what level of reasonable suspicion and probable cause there needs to be in order for them to feel comfortable doing their jobs.”  

Davis has said he’ll be standing with his officers as they retrain and work towards a community-oriented policing strategy, but Baltimore cops have some old habits to break and that won’t be easy. And it won’t happen quickly.

“It’s a very traditional police department,” Davis told Dan Rodricks.  “It’s focused on enforcement for the last two or three decades... The big question cops have is can you reconcile the change of enforcement-oriented to service-oriented and still fight crime?”

Davis says it can be done.  He wants to start training the mid-level sergeants and lieutenants.   

The FOP’s Ryan has said that police aren’t responsible for rebuilding neighborhoods.  But not all officers agree with him.

Major Steven Ward from the Eastern District says people in the poorest communities, often where the most crime is – see the police officers more than any other city employee.  And he sees that as an opportunity.

“One gentleman says, we’re not social workers. Hey, I beg to differ.  We deal with more social service issues than police issues.  They always ask, “Major – how can I get my driver’s license?  Social security card? A job? My record expunged?”’

Major Ward says he and his officers made information pamphlets and they hand them out during Friday night community walks.   He says they even have a slogan: "We’re all in this together. Let’s make a difference as one." Ward hopes his message spreads far and wide.

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.