West Baltimore’s Police Presence Drops, and Murders Soar

Richard A. Oppel, Jr., New York Times, June 12, 2015

From the steps of her New Bethlehem Baptist Church, the Rev. Lisa Weah looked down the block to the open-air drug market outside the bodega on the corner a few hundred feet away.

The traffic there had been slowing until the chaos that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, after he was injured in police custody. Now it is back full-bore, and the police are often nowhere to be seen.

A month and a half after six officers were charged in Mr. Gray’s death, policing has dwindled in some of Baltimore’s most dangerous neighborhoods, and murders have risen to levels not seen in four decades. {snip}

Around the nation, communities and police departments are struggling to adapt to an era of heightened scrutiny, when every stop can be recorded on a cellphone. But residents, clergy members and neighborhood leaders say the past six weeks have made another reality clear: that as much as some officers regularly humiliated and infuriated many who live here, angering gang members and solid citizens alike, the solution has to be better policing, not a diminished police presence.

“Without law enforcement, there is no order,” Pastor Weah said. “In truth, residents want a strong police force, but they also want accountability.” She said that she sympathized with many officers who did their jobs well but were now just as hated as the abusive officers, and that she prayed the spate of killings would be the shock that finally caused change.

{snip}

At least 55 people, the highest pace since the early 1970s, have been murdered in Baltimore since May 1, when the state’s attorney for the city, Marilyn J. Mosby, announced the criminal charges against the officers. Victims of shootings have included people involved in criminal activity and young children who were simply in the wrong place.

{snip}

At the time of her announcement, Ms. Mosby’s charges were seen as calming the city. But they enraged the police rank and file, who pulled back. The number of arrests plunged, and the murder rate doubled in a month. The reduced police presence gave criminals space to operate, according to community leaders and some law enforcement officials.

The soaring violence has made Baltimore a battleground for political arguments about whether a backlash against police tactics has led to more killings in big cities like New York, St. Louis and Chicago, and whether “de-policing,” as academics call it, can cause crime to rise.

Still, the speed and severity of the police pullback here appear unlike anything that has happened in other major cities. And rather than a clear test case, Baltimore is a reminder of how complicated policing issues are and how hard it can be to draw solid conclusions from a month or two of crime and police response.

For example, police commanders here attribute the spike in violence in large part to a unique factor: a flood of black-market opiates stolen from 27 pharmacies during looting in April, enough for 175,000 doses now illegally available for sale.

{snip}

Police leaders acknowledge, though, that they do not yet know how many of the recent murders were drug-related. Mr. Tuggle also said he took issue with “this idea that the only reason for the rise in violence” is drugs.

“It’s hard to police effectively if you are only concerned about self-preservation,” he said. “If you are not challenging them because of the need for self-preservation, then these folks are likely going to go out and commit these crimes.”

{snip}

Healing the chasm between the police and western Baltimore is the job of a new commander, Capt. Sheree Briscoe, now acting major in charge of the three-square-mile district that sees much of the worst violence. After her appointment late last month, she moved quickly to bring community leaders into the fold, a new approach that has encouraged Pastor Weah and others.

Captain Briscoe promised that this was only the beginning of changes. “You cannot just attack the drug trade” alone, she said, citing deep-rooted social and economic challenges, and problems with things like trash, lighting and vacant homes, that needed to be “holistically” addressed.

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In Sandtown-Winchester, the nearly all-black district where Mr. Gray took his last steps a few blocks from Pastor Weah’s church, one in four children age 10 to 17 were arrested from 2005 to 2009, according to a report by the city’s Health Department. The neighborhood had twice as much poverty and unemployment as the rest of Baltimore, which is itself one of the nation’s poorest major cities.

{snip}

The police say there were 13 homicides in the first 11 days of June. One teenager outside the booming open-air drug market down the block from Pastor Weah’s church was not optimistic that the pace would slow.

“Summertime,” he said. “That’s when they do all the killing.”

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