Baltimore On The Wire

Before the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) damning report about the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), before the debacle of three successive acquittals of the officers who were charged in the death of Freddie Gray, the first impression many Americans had of Baltimore was through the critically-acclaimed HBO series “The Wire.” They saw grimy, dangerous streets, populated by tragic drug addicts, ruthless dealers and a fearless vigilante named Omar who did more damage to the dealers at times than the BPD did.

Omar and Bunk in the HBO series "The Wire."
Vigilante Omar Little portrayed by Michael K. Williams and Detective William “Bunk” Moreland portrayed by Wendell Pierce in the HBO series “The Wire.” Courtesy HBO

On “The Wire,” the members of the BPD were complicated characters. None were mythically pure. They were relentlessly profane. They lied to suspects, superiors and each other. They cheated on spouses and lovers. They were relentlessly cynical about the political system that controlled their destiny. And they were not above delivering a beatdown to a suspect or crossing legal and ethical lines to achieve their goals.

But because “The Wire” was just a television show, it was easy to forgive its cops for their many transgressions. It was easy, thanks to the show’s producers and writers, to sympathize with their brokenness and flaws. After all, a television show is a fantasy. The DOJ report, sadly, is no fantasy. The findings about the police department’s methods and actions – which disproportionately had a negative impact on African-Americans – is disturbing and familiar.

Report: Routine Excessive Force and Retaliation

According to the DOJ, Baltimore police officers routinely make “unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests”; use “excessive force”; and retaliate against citizens who express themselves in “constitutionally protected” ways. The report blames “systemic deficiencies” in “policies, training, supervision and accountability”.

The report details disturbing data, including the following:

  • Baltimore officers made over 300,000 stops 2010-2015, mostly in predominantly black neighborhoods and, according to the DOJ, without “reasonable suspicion” of a crime.
  • Of the 410 individuals stopped by BPD at least 10 times during a five-and-a-half year period, 95 percent were African-Americans.
  • One black man was stopped 30 times in less than four years, none of which led to him being ticketed or charged.

Bring the change

Because of when it was released, it’s hard not to juxtapose the release of the DOJ report with the resolution of the trials related to the death of Freddy Gray.

“I think it confirms and affirms a lot of the feelings of the people,” Dr. Kesslyn Brade Stennis told Message. “But bringing justice would mean bringing change.”

Dr. Kesslyn Brade Stennis, Chair of Social Work at Coppin State University.

Dr. Stennis is the chair of Social Work at Coppin State University in Baltimore. She teaches students who have their own stories about dealings with police.

“They weren’t surprised to hear the number of ‘police run-ins’,” Stennis said. “And yet, they are very resilient and very strong, and believers in their city. A lot of pride in Baltimore.”

But pride in their city doesn’t change the facts or the experiences of some of Stennis’s students. One of them told a story in class about how he woke up to find himself in the middle of a police raid on his home. The BPD was looking for one of his relatives, but that person wasn’t in the home. In the process of conducting the raid, property was damaged.

“The police had shot the dog,” she said. “And yet there were no reparations for him, for his family. He had to pay for the items destroyed in the raid.”

Two Cities In One

The Justice Department concedes in its report that policing in Baltimore can be challenging. It cites the impact that poverty, racial segregation, “deficient educational, employment and housing opportunities” have had on the social fabric of the city.

In fact, the story of Baltimore is a tale of two cities in many ways. More than 60 percent of Baltimore’s population is black, making the issues of race and class inextricable. Census data indicates that 23 percent of Baltimore’s residents live in poverty. And, whites make nearly double what blacks do.

Huge swaths of the city have a population that is 80 to 100 percent black. Small areas are either white or somewhat mixed.

Blight is prevalent is Baltimore. An estimated 16,000 buildings are vacant, as are 14,000 lots. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that Baltimore has nearly an 8 percent unemployment rate, exceeding the national rate by more than 2 percentage points.

This bleak data certainly doesn’t help the housing market. Maryland, the nation’s wealthiest state based on income, has a median housing value of $292, 700. The national median is $176,700. Baltimore’s is $157,900.

Joining Forces

Nevertheless, societal ills don’t justify inequities in law enforcement. The city of Baltimore paid out $5.7 million in police brutality settlements from 2011-2014, a clear indication that the DOJ’s assessment of the BPD is correct.

Dr. Stennis, who also has a Master of Divinity degree from Howard University, believes that the problems in Baltimore must be addressed. She also believes there is a role for the church and believers. But that requires engagement in the community.

“I think sometimes we fall into the mentality of ‘let’s pray about it and see what happens’,’’ Stennis said. “My examples of God are not just praying and waiting for God to do what God has and can do, but it’s joining forces with God to make things happen.”

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