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Having Black Cops and Black Mayors Doesn't End Police Brutality

A Baltimore writer on racial tension and the limits of diversity

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Baltimore has been resplendently, comfortingly black for as long as I can remember. My mother brought me here from predominantly white Lansing, Michigan in 1984, the same year then-Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer appointed Bishop L. Robinson Sr. as Baltimore’s first black police commissioner. A few years later, Kurt Schmoke, the city’s first black—and arguably its best—mayor took office. From kindergarten through high school, my classes and communities were at least 50 percent black—and I lived in Baltimore County, the relatively suburban region surrounding the inner city that boasted an even larger black population. Growing up where the children and adults in my life shared a cultural shorthand that was often specific to our race seemed not just significant, but rare and even magical at times.

As a young black girl, it was easy to idealize the black politicians and police officers who were so visible during my upbringing. In the 1980s, Baltimore was excelling where many American cities in 2015—including Ferguson, Missouri—are still failing to even begin: ensuring that black communities are also served by a significant number of black police officers and policymakers. The Baltimore Sun reported in 1992 that “within a year, all but one, or possibly two, of those holding any rank above major in the Baltimore force will be black” and “privately, white and black commanders alike acknowledge that the changes reflect the desire of city officials for a police force that reflects Baltimore's majority-black community.” The reasoning for these changes seemed obvious enough: The city believed the presence of black people in politics and law enforcement could foster greater trust and more open communication between black citizens and their government. We now have yet more evidence to dispute that notion, thanks to the still-mysterious fatal injuries suffered by Freddie Gray while in police custody earlier this month.

Until my teens, I romanticized the Baltimore City force, imagining that police and citizens who had race in common might understand one another better. But I rarely spent much time in the sections of Baltimore that were being increasingly ravaged by an influx of heroin and crack cocaine and the vestiges of generational poverty in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I wasn’t paying attention to Mayor Schmoke’s evolving stance on treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue—a position entirely at odds with the War on Drugs being waged, and lost, in the communities he governed. And I had far too little occasion to observe the goings-on in Sandtown-Winchester, the disproportionately impoverished, criminalized neighborhood where Gray was arrested on April 12, in an incident that would later lead to his death one week later. His spinal cord was reportedly 80 percent severed, allegedly due to the actions of six police officers, some of whom were black.

I have lived in Baltimore, off and on, for over two decades. Many of the same areas that have been poor since I arrived are still poor now. My main connection to Baltimore City was through my church in Park Heights. While I didn’t notice much antagonism between police and residents on the days I worshipped there, I did begin to notice how staunchly segregated the area was. In the 1990s, when I spent time there, the black part of Park Heights was high-crime, low-income, and considered to be a food desert. The closest grocery store then regularly sold spoiled food. Gang activity was prevalent. But Upper Park Heights—or “the Jewish part”—was serene, regularly patrolled both by neighborhood watches and Baltimore Police. Fresh food was fairly accessible, and homes were better tended and secured.

That kind of segregation of race and resources is not uncommon in Baltimore City today. I always find it curious when anyone denies or ignores the role institutional racism plays in upholding quality-of-life disparities that occur here in such close proximity. Earlier this year, Baltimore Brew reported the findings of a 2014 City Observatory report that tracked the geographic concentration of poverty in urban cities: “In 2010, Baltimore had 55 high-poverty census tracts. Only one formerly high-poverty tract (colored green on the City Observatory map) fully rebounded since 1970.”

Writing before Monday’s destruction, the Baltimore-based New York magazine writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells argued that the police brutality Freddie Gray experienced may have had “less to do with racism than race.” He added, “There is nothing like the overt racism of Ferguson here, no predatory relationship between the city's leadership and its people.” Interaction between black leadership and residents might not be predatory, but their relationship is navigated firmly within the parameters of institutional racism.

Twenty-one black Baltimore City officers filed a class action suit against the force in 2004, citing rampant discrimination. The police force is still majority white, and the department has been probed by the Justice Department about racial bias in hiring.  And, despite having far more black officers than the county department, black residents of Baltimore City are just as suspicious of their department as black county residents are of theirs. And with good reason.

In his 1997 book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, “The Wire” creator David Simon explained why Baltimore policing in the 1990s benefitted little from the addition of more black cops in the preceding decades:

A white patrolman in West Baltimore has to at least… take into account that he is messing with black folk in a majority black city. Not so his black counterparts, for whom brutality complaints can be shrugged off… because the racial aspect is neutralized.

FBI director James Comey has suggested that distrust between black communities and most police, regardless of their race, has to do with officers’ unconscious racial bias. According to the Baltimore Sun, Comey elaborated in an address at Georgetown University in February. “Police officers of all races can easily become cynical about the people they are sworn to protect, and that leads them to fall back on ‘mental shortcuts’ that become ‘almost irresistible’ when most of the suspects they arrest are black males,” Comey said. “After a while they can come to see any black man they encounter as a potential criminal—and to react based on that assumption.”

It would be easy, and wrong, to assume that Baltimore City and its government are less racially stratified because our political leaders and law enforcement officials have included so many high-ranking black representatives in the last 30 years or so. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is a black woman, as was her predecessor, Mayor Sheila Dixon. Batts is Baltimore City’s seventh black police commissioner. But the similitude in the relationship between Baltimore’s leaders and its residents doesn’t nullify  police brutality that runs rampant.

Rawlings-Blake, a lifelong resident of Baltimore, has been vocal about the city’s “broken relationship” with the police in light of Freddie Gray’s death and made public overtures about trying to repair the breach. In February, Rawlings-Blake proposed three bills to the Maryland General Assembly intended to grant Batts greater authority to discipline police accused of misconduct. One bill even sought to create a new felony charge for officers accused of assault. "I want to say that we understand that there is a very small number of officers who don't deserve to wear the badge, that dishonor the legacy of the hard work of the police department, and we should look for ways together to root those officers out," she testified. “It could be one incident away from being a Ferguson or a Madison or New York. These are very, very serious issues, and I think we have an opportunity in this time to stand together—law enforcement, elected officials, community members—and say that the status quo is not enough.”

Despite her convincing—and accurate—assessment of the need for police reform, Rawlings-Blake’s proposed bills never made it out of committee. Baltimore police union President Gene Ryan, along with representatives of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriff's Association, challenged the proposed bills, claiming they would hinder due process for accused members of law enforcement.

Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young also clashed earlier this year over a proposed bill that would have required the city’s 3,000 officers to wear body cameras. The mayor cited cost and privacy issues as reasons to veto Young’s bill as proposed. Though she still insists a pilot body camera program will be in place by the end of the year, they aren’t there yet—and even when they arrive, there’s no guarantee their use will result in a significant decline in police brutality.

In the weeks since Gray died, I've been asked more than once what I think it will take for sustainable change to take place in Baltimore City. Like most people who've spent their whole lives here, I have no idea. I think having city officials and police officers who were raised in or near the communities they police will help. I think the passing of bills authorizing greater police discipline, such as the ones the mayor suggested, will help. But maybe the best first step is more basic.

During recent protests, Baltimore women have been spotted burning sage in front of police lines. (Burning sage is believed to cleanse people and spaces of negative energy, people, and spaces.) In one video caught by a fellow protester, a woman is talking to the officers as she paces in front of them. “Sage in the whole area,” she says. “Sage in the whole police department—all of you who are not with the Black Lives Matter movement... Black lives matter because we’re the only ones getting killed and they make y’all stand there and say nothing. That’s why we don’t trust y’all: Because you won’t communicate with us.”

The relationship between communities and cops needs cleansing. With or without the sage, police would do well to heed that woman's message. Without civil communication, a constant police presence— especially marked by hostility or violence—feels like occupation. Police can do their part to repair the Baltimore they've long played a role in ravaging, simply by speaking to residents and responding when spoken to. The first step in valuing a black life is to acknowledge the person living it when she's right in front of you.