Baltimore cops pressured to police differently, but also begged to clear the corners

They’d come to the same church on the same night to confront the same quandary facing this city’s beleaguered police department. But what they wanted from the police couldn’t have been more different.

Eight days had passed since the Justice Department issued a scathing review of the Baltimore Police Department, detailing years of racial discrimination in its law enforcement practices.

Yet the 40 or so longtime residents who gathered in a West Baltimore church basement on this August night — many of whom were older black women afraid to walk to the store or leave their homes at night — had come to urge police to clear their corners of miscreants and restore order to their crime-plagued community.

“Please, help me,” pleaded gas station owner Chaudhry Masood, whose parking lot has been overrun by loiterers and where a 17-year-old was recently shot and killed.

At the same time, in an adjacent church hall, Justice Department civil rights attorneys were discussing how to overhaul the police department with another group of residents intent on curbing the abusive behavior of corner-clearing cops. Those attending included black youths long targeted by police.

The organizers of each gathering didn’t know the other was taking place. As people showed up Aug. 18, a priest from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church hurriedly attached paper signs to metal railings to direct the flow. The meeting with the police community relations council to the right, the meeting with Justice Department lawyers to the left.

The disconnect between those focused on crime and those focused on police reform looms large as Baltimore reaches an agreement with the federal government to restructure the department and end unconstitutional detentions, arrests and beatings.

The Aug. 10 report came more than a year after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. His funeral touched off riots, an unsuccessful prosecution of six police officers and the Justice Department investigation. Many of the abuses that investigators found centered on the way police officers interact with black Baltimoreans, including people congregating on street corners. The report concluded that Baltimore officers had “nearly unfettered discretion to criminalize the act of standing on public sidewalks.”

But for the residents gathered in the St. Peter’s basement, the shootings, robberies and assaults they live with are just as pressing as police abuses.

One man wanted to know where the promised foot patrol officers were. Arlene Fisher, a social worker who has lived all of her 67 years in West Baltimore, said the corner stores that dot the sullen landscape are petitioning to stay open 24 hours.

“They’ll become a gathering place causing problems,” Fisher predicted. “We’ll need more police to watch it.”

Residents don’t like to call 911 when the corners fill, but Fisher said that without better places for young people to congregate, they have no choice. She looked down and whispered, “We have to.”

At the front of the room stood Maj. Sheree Briscoe, who runs the police department’s Western District in the post-Freddie Gray era. She and other commanders are caught between competing forces — curtail crime as the residents want, and change the way policing is practiced as the Justice Department demands.

“It’s not easy,” she acknowledged in an interview.

On this night, Briscoe walked a delicate path, assuring frustrated residents that “finding a way to deal with noncriminal but unwelcome behavior has to be addressed.”

‘The city is suffering’

Clearing the corners has been a mainstay of Baltimore policing for decades, a way for a beat cop to show who’s boss and to break up open-air drug markets that once numbered 200 across the city.

Anthony Barksdale, who retired from the force in 2014 as a deputy police commissioner, said he would tell young men, “Fellas, I know you’re going to give my corner,” and they would scatter.

After the Justice Department report, Barksdale said, “Everybody on the corner is challenging the police. Then when the police drive by and don’t push them off, the citizens are saying, ‘What the hell are the cops good for?’ ”

Barksdale took exception to the report’s criticism that stops of pedestrians were concentrated in a few black neighborhoods. Barksdale, who is black and grew up in West Baltimore, said that’s true only because “police are responding to crime.”

The Justice Department, he said, has effectively “turned over control of the corners to the criminal elements. The city is suffering already, and it’s going to suffer more. . . . They need to understand the streets of Baltimore are no joke, and they’ve given the bad elements more authority to destroy the neighborhoods.”

The “mighty Western,” as police in this district call themselves, is the smallest of the city’s seven patrol areas but historically has had the city’s highest crime rates. In 2015, there were 66 killings in the district’s 2.8 square miles, the highest among the patrol areas.

The city recorded 344 homicides last year, the highest per capita in history. This year, Western leads the other districts with 35 homicides.

Peter Moskos, who served as a Baltimore officer from 1999 to 2001 for his Harvard University thesis and a book called “Cop in the Hood,” said the Justice Department “forgot that people live in the Western District, and they deserve peace and quiet as much as anyone in the city.”

Moskos, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that most people want anti-loitering laws and other quality-of-life violations enforced. But the widely embraced “broken windows” approach to law enforcement, which emphasized enforcing littering and graffiti ordinances to prevent further lawlessness, has fallen out of favor with many experts. In Baltimore, that strategy morphed into zero-tolerance policing, fueling hundreds of thousands of arrests and a combative mind-set among officers that continued even after the concept was officially abandoned.

The Justice report noted a poster found in Baltimore police stations that depicted a handcuffed man in a hoodie being escorted by officers to a prison van. It read: “Striking fear into loiters Citywide.” A sergeant ordered an officer to fabricate a reason for clearing a corner while a Justice Department lawyer was in the cruiser, the report said.

The report found that in two police districts, including the Western, officers made nearly 1.5 stops per resident over four years. One man was detained 34 times without being charged with a crime. Several hundred were stopped more than 10 times.

The Justice report said Baltimore police are using antiquated strategies from the 1990s to fight a modern drug war — banging corners, rousting groups of young men — in an era when open-air markets are not as prevalent as during the crack cocaine days of the early 1990s. “Every element of crime and criminal activity is different now and demands different laws, policies, and tactics,” the report concluded.

Moskos said the nationwide debate over law enforcement borne out of shootings by officers and in-custody deaths should center on “how we want police to police.

“I have moral issues about clearing corners,” he said. “But on the other hand, you could argue, ‘We’re doing this because people are literally dying.’ ”

‘We live here’

James Jones remembers the first time he was stopped by the police. It was 45 years ago in an alley off Edmondson Avenue, across the street from the strip of boarded-up rowhouses and storefronts where he spends six hours a day chatting with friends.

He is 63 and limps from his arthritis. He leans on a broken cane held together with duct tape. Back in the day, he boasted, he could outrun any officer who tried to stop him.

The corner confrontation was and remains part of the landscape. “The cops come and they tell you that you can’t stand here,” Jones said. “And we say: ‘Why not? We live here.’ Same conversation been going on forever.”

Jones is a retired maintenance worker for the city and toured Baltimore’s police stations making repairs. His hangout is Edmondson Avenue and Brice Street, near a motorcycle club and along a stretch of empty houses adorned with blue and white signs advertising a program called “Vacants to Value” — Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s latest effort to rid the city of blight.

He said that the police have largely left his group alone over the past year. He described two eras on the street: pre-Freddie Gray, in which he estimates that there were more than 150 police visits to his corner over a year, and post-Freddie Gray, in which he says that there have been none.

On Presstman and Stricker streets, about a mile away, an extended family occupies a quiet block of three-story rowhouses just a few blocks from St. Peter Claver. That doesn’t stop police from pouncing, according to interviews with half a dozen residents in their early 20s to mid-40s, several whiling away the time on the front steps. Four are playing a lively game of dominoes on a card table on the sidewalk.

Asked how many times he’s been stopped by police on this street, Jake Brown, 21, smiled and said, “How many times do you wake up every year?”

Brown made no apologies for being on the corner, and he denied selling drugs. “This is our home,” he said. “This is where we live. I grew up here. We all grew up here. Where else do we go?”

Melvin Baker, also 21, attended middle school across the street and graduated with honors from high school. He wants to be a truck driver but said that three marijuana arrests have gotten him turned down for several jobs. “Once you’re in this cycle, you’re in it,” he said.

He read the Justice Department report and said that although it backed the repeated complaints of Baker and his friends, he doesn’t believe anything will change. “It doesn’t matter who is mayor, who is head police,” Baker said. “We say something, it’s our word against theirs.”

Brown’s older brother, Kevin Brown, 34, said simply, “We want police to do their job.” He complained that after last year’s riots, “police stopped working,” and the homicide numbers spiked to all-time highs. “They let it be open season over here,” he said. “And it’s people like us they continue to harass.”

The younger men talked about what kind of police force they want. Violent offenders, “those doing the killings,” should be arrested, they said. People hanging out on the street should be left alone.

The sunlight faded as the day came to an end. An ice cream truck pulled up to the block, and the men rose from the shade of the steps to grab snow cones. Some returned to dominoes, arguing over the score, debating the plays, boasting about past triumphs. A police car sped down the block three times in an hour but did not stop.

All said they had friends and relatives who had been fatally shot. Asked how many, the younger Brown said, “Five.” He paused before adding, “A year.”

Baker said what they want is simple: “Respect.”

He stood just five blocks from where the two policing meetings were about to commence at St. Peter Claver. The Justice Department gathering was sponsored by a community group called No Boundaries, whose ­co-director, Ray Kelly, didn’t realize that the police community relations council was meeting at the same time.

The disconnect was profound. Those who felt abused by the police didn’t hear their neighbors expressing fear about crime. Those fearful of crime didn’t hear the voices of people who have been harassed by the police.

It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, Kelly said. The debate over whether the police discriminated is over. The idea now, he said, “is to change it so it can actually work, to find ways to address the culture, and not just criminalize everyone.”

Simply clearing the corners, he said, won’t work anymore.

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