An American City, Inhabited Yet Abandoned

BALTIMORE, MD - January 19: Empty buildings display graffiti on January 19, 2018, around the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore, Maryland. With 343 homicides last year, Baltimore hit the record for killings per capita. (AP Photo/The Christian Science Monitor, Ann Hermes)

Until 2015, Baltimore seemed to be on an upswing — population growth, investment, development, rising income, lowered crime rates. Then Freddie Gray died in police custody. But it wasn’t the community uprisings that marked the start of decline, it was the the reaction of the police when six of their own were charged in connected with Gray’s death.

“Cops don’t necessarily stop in their tracks because another cop is charged in a crime,” Kevin Davis, one of Batts’s deputies at the time, told me. “Typically it’s a bad cop, a crook, a drug dealer or a drunk or someone who abuses his wife. But when these cops got charged criminally and the probable cause was not easily understood by the rank and file — that gave them a sense of dread.”

The department’s officers responded swiftly, by doing nothing. In Baltimore it came to be known as “the pullback”: a monthslong retreat from policing, a protest that was at once undeclared and unmistakably deliberate — encouraged, some top officials in the department at the time believe, by the local police union. Many officers responded to calls for service but refused to undertake any “officer-initiated” action. Cruisers rolled by trouble spots without stopping or didn’t roll by at all. Compounding the situation, some of the officers hospitalized in the riot remained out on medical leave. Arrests plunged by more than half from the same month a year before. The head of the police union, Lt. Gene Ryan, called the pullback justifiable: “Officers may be second-guessing themselves,” he told The Sun. “Questioning, if I make this stop or this arrest, will I be prosecuted?”

Ray Kelly, a West Baltimore community activist, had achieved measured success in building relationships with officers along the drug-riddled Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, where his organization had an office. Suddenly, those officers were gone. “We saw a pullback in this community for over a month where it was up to the community to police the community,” Kelly told me. “And quite frankly, we were outgunned.” In the vacuum, crews took new corners and people settled old scores. Not a single person was killed on the day of the rioting. But the following month, May, would conclude with 41 homicides — the most the city had experienced in a month since the 1970s, and more than the city of Boston would have for the entire year.

The trials led to three acquittals and one hung jury, and the remaining cases were dropped. But then something else dropped: a 160+ page report from the U.S. Department of Justice finding that Baltimore police had engaged in “a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.” The aftermath, coupled with ever-dropping numbers of police officers, exacerbated the existing chaos and poor community/cop relations.

The Justice Department’s report, meanwhile, had led to the federal “consent decree” that the city negotiated with the department — a sweeping set of reforms of the Police Department that set out new rules governing stops and searches, internal discipline and much more. Gene Ryan, the leader of the police union, complained that his organization had been shut out of the process of drafting it. Tony Barksdale, who had been retired for three years and now spent his days trading stocks online, attacked it incessantly on Twitter, accusing city leaders of “handcuffing your own cops while turning the city over to criminals.”

One afternoon not long after Guy began her job as the consent-decree monitoring team’s community liaison, she strapped on a bulletproof vest and rode along with a city police officer to see the realities he and his colleagues faced. The officer started his shift at 9 a.m. and, because of the department’s shortage of officers, would work until 2:30 the next morning.

They cruised block after block of rowhouses in an especially drug-plagued area. The officer received a text message to disperse a cluster of young men — a frequent point of confrontation in the city. Young men often congregate in front of corner stores or liquor stores, sometimes just hanging out, other times selling drugs; the city would have a record 692 fatal opioid overdoses in 2017.

“I’m supposed to clear this corner,” the officer told Guy, showing her the address on the screen.

“Can you do that?” she asked.

“No,” he said. As he understood it, the consent decree barred him from dispersing the young men. So he didn’t. But then his phone rang. “I guess when I ignore a call, then I get a phone call telling me I need to do my [expletive] job,” he said. Which was indeed what the call was.

In a complex but comprehensive story in the New York Times MagazineAlec MacGillis takes us through the causes and consequences of Baltimore’s rising violent crime rates, the result of “a failure of order and governance the likes of which few American cities have seen in years.”

Read the story