Posted on March 14, 2019

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Alec MacGillis, New York Times Magazine, March 12, 2019


In Baltimore, you can tell a lot about the politics of the person you’re talking with by the word he or she uses to describe the events of April 27, 2015. Some people, and most media outlets, call them the “riots”; some the “unrest.” Guy was among those who always referred to them as the “uprising,” a word that connoted something justifiable and positive: the first step, however tumultuous, toward a freer and fairer city. Policing in Baltimore, Guy and many other residents believed, was broken, with officers serving as an occupying army in enemy territory — harassing African-American residents without cause, breeding distrust and hostility.

In 2016, the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division concurred, releasing a report accusing the city’s Police Department of racial discrimination and excessive force. The city agreed to a “consent decree” with the federal government, a set of policing reforms that would be enforced by a federal judge. {snip}

But in the years that followed, Baltimore, by most standards, became a worse place. In 2017, it recorded 342 murders — its highest per-capita rate ever, more than double Chicago’s, far higher than any other city of 500,000 or more residents and, astonishingly, a larger absolute number of killings than in New York, a city 14 times as populous. Other elected officials, from the governor to the mayor to the state’s attorney, struggled to respond to the rise in disorder, leaving residents with the unsettling feeling that there was no one in charge. With every passing year, it was getting harder to see what gains, exactly, were delivered by the uprising.


It takes remarkable fortitude to remain an optimist about Baltimore today. I have lived in the city for 11 of the past 18 years, and for the last few I have struggled to describe its unraveling to friends and colleagues elsewhere. If you live in, say, New York or Boston, you are familiar with a certain story of urban America. Several decades ago, disorder and dysfunction were common across American cities. Then came the great urban rebirth: a wave of reinvestment coupled with a plunge in crime rates that has left many major cities to enjoy a sort of post-fear existence.

Until 2015, Baltimore seemed to be enjoying its own, more modest version of this upswing. Though it is often lumped in with Rust Belt economic casualties like Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit, Baltimore in fact fared better than these postindustrial peers. Because of the Johns Hopkins biomedical empire, the city’s busy port and its proximity to Washington, metro Baltimore enjoyed higher levels of wealth and income — including among its black population — than many former manufacturing hubs.

The city still had its ills — its blight, suburban flight, segregation, drugs, racial inequality, concentrated poverty. But as recently as 2014, Baltimore’s population, which is 63 percent African-American, was increasing, up slightly to 623,000 after decades of decline. Office buildings downtown were being converted to apartments, and a new business-and-residential district was rising east of the Inner Harbor. The city was even attracting those ultimate imprimaturs of urban revival, a couple of food halls.

The subsequent regression has been swift and demoralizing. Redevelopment continues in some parts of town, but nearly four years after Freddie Gray’s death, the surge in crime has once again become the context of daily life in the city, as it was in the early 1990s. {snip}

The violence and disorder have fed broader setbacks. Gov. Larry Hogan canceled a $2.9 billion rail transit line for West Baltimore, defending the disinvestment in the troubled neighborhood partly by noting that the state had spent $14 million responding to the riots. Target closed its store in West Baltimore, a blow to a part of town short of retail options. The civic compact has so frayed that one acquaintance admitted to me recently that he had stopped waiting at red lights when driving late at night. Why should he, he argued, when he saw young men on dirt bikes flying through intersections while police officers sat in cruisers doing nothing?

Explaining all this to people outside Baltimore is difficult, not only because the experience is alien to those even in cities just up or down the Interstate from us (though a handful of cities elsewhere, like Chicago and St. Louis, have experienced their own waves of recent violence, albeit less dramatically than Baltimore). It’s also because the national political discourse lacks a vocabulary for the city’s ills. On right-wing talk radio, one of the few sectors of the media to take much interest in Baltimore’s crime surge, there are old tropes of urban mayhem — Trump’s “American carnage.” Typically lacking from these schadenfreude-laced discussions is any sense of the historical forces and societal abandonment that the city has for decades struggled to overcome.

On the left, in contrast, Baltimore’s recent woes have been largely overlooked, partly because they present a challenge to those who start from the assumption that policing is inherently suspect. The national progressive story of Baltimore during this era of criminal-justice reform has been the story of the police excesses that led to Gray’s death and the uprising, not the surge of violence that has overtaken the city ever since. As a result, Baltimore has been left mostly on its own to contend with what has been happening, which has amounted to nothing less than a failure of order and governance the likes of which few American cities have seen in years.

To understand how things in Baltimore have gotten so bad, you need to first understand how, not so long ago, they got better. Violence was epidemic in Baltimore in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as it was in many other cities, as crack intruded into a drug market long dominated by heroin. In 1993, the city crossed the 350-homicide mark. These were the years that inspired “The Wire.” They also gave rise to Martin O’Malley, a city councilman who was elected mayor on an anti-crime platform in 1999.

O’Malley set about implementing what was then known as the New York model: zero tolerance for open-air drug markets, data-centric “CompStat” meetings to track crime and hold police commanders accountable and more resources for law enforcement paired with tougher discipline for officers who abused their power. By the time O’Malley, a Democrat, was elected governor of Maryland in 2006, crime rates, including murders, had fallen across the board, but at a cost. Arrests had jumped to 101,000 in 2005 from 81,000 in 1999 — leaving a city full of young men with criminal records and months and years away from jobs and families.


Early in 2007, [a police detective named Tony Barksdale] proposed a more targeted approach to policing to Sheila Dixon, the City Council president who finished O’Malley’s term as mayor after he was elected governor. Dixon, like Barksdale a product of the city’s black working class, agreed with Barksdale’s vision for reducing the murders without mass arrests. “She said, ‘How long will it take you?’ ” Barksdale recalls. “I said, ‘One day.’ ”

Fred Bealefeld, Dixon’s new police commissioner, promoted Barksdale to deputy of operations — he was the youngest deputy commissioner in the city’s history — and Barksdale got to work. He developed plainclothes units with a more surgical approach to policing, which targeted the most violent corners and worked with homicide detectives to arrest the people whose names surfaced in connection with killings. He and Bealefeld met weekly with top-ranking staff members in the mayor’s office and sat down with top city officials every couple of weeks in CitiStat meetings — the municipal equivalent of CompStat — where Bealefeld was quizzed on overtime costs, recruiting and other markers of departmental health. Every couple of weeks, representatives of the police, the state’s attorney’s office and others met to review data on firearms prosecutions.

Arrests fell by a third from 2006 to 2011 — and homicides plummeted as well, to 197 in 2011, the city’s first time under 200 in almost four decades. A 2018 study by Johns Hopkins found that the new approach to policing was the city’s most effective in recent years. “Baltimore had it going on,” Barksdale told me.

But while Dixon had carried on O’Malley’s government-accountability practices, she proved less than ethical in her own affairs. A few years into Barksdale’s efforts, she was charged by the state prosecutor with theft and fraud. The prosecutor had scrutinized contracts and jobs her friends and relatives had received from the city — investigations that led to the discovery that she had personally used hundreds of dollars in gift cards solicited from developers and meant for poor children.

Dixon was convicted and resigned, and was replaced by the City Council’s president, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, an Oberlin- and University of Maryland School of Law-educated daughter of a powerful state legislator. Rawlings-Blake, a more reserved leader than Dixon, wanted Bealefeld to communicate with the public more often than he was inclined to but also less candidly; a white cop from a family full of them, Bealefeld was known for his blunt talk about “punks” and “knuckleheads.” In 2012, he retired, as did two of his closest City Hall allies, and Barksdale became interim commissioner.

Barksdale interviewed for the permanent job, but Rawlings-Blake instead hired Anthony Batts, the former police chief in Oakland, Calif. Batts had resigned in Oakland amid tensions with the mayor and federal court monitors, but he had a doctorate and spoke fluently about the need for community relations. Batts’s profile suited a city that wanted to believe that its most violent days were behind it. Barksdale didn’t find out he had been passed over until he got a call from Justin Fenton, The Sun’s lead police reporter.

When the Black Lives Matter movement transformed the debate about policing in 2014, Batts embraced an image as a reformer. He attended street festivals in full uniform. He reined in Barksdale’s plainclothes teams after a series in The Sun reported how much the city was spending to resolve lawsuits over rough arrests — more than $5 million since 2011. On Bealefeld and Barksdale’s watch, there had also been a rise in shootings by police officers, which roughly doubled between 2006 and 2007 before dropping to earlier levels — a fact Barksdale remains unapologetic about. “To hit the brakes on crime, there will be police-involved shootings,” he recalls telling Dixon and Bealefeld. “I know their mind-set. They’ll respect you if you’re willing to die just like them. And there are people who just don’t get that.”

It was a controversial approach and one that Batts did not subscribe to. He replaced much of the command staff, and other people left on their own. Among them was Barksdale, who retired at age 42. “I like a commissioner who says, ‘Look, we have people in the community we have to arrest,’ ” Barksdale told me. “Not cops out here dancing in full uniform.”

Political developments, meanwhile, had eroded foundations of the department’s recent successes, which depended heavily on coordination with City Hall and state and federal prosecutors, as well as with Maryland’s parole-and-probation office and other state agencies that might not have been as attentive to the city if the governor had not been a former Baltimore mayor. But in 2014, Maryland elected Larry Hogan, a Republican suburban real estate developer, as O’Malley’s successor for governor. Hogan put less pressure on state offices to work closely with the city’s police. And the new state’s attorney, after an upset victory in a low-turnout Democratic primary, was Marilyn Mosby, a 34-year-old former assistant prosecutor who had run with the apparent goal of shaking up the city’s law-enforcement bureaucracy. She jettisoned not only top deputies but also many prosecutors; more left of their own accord. Over time, senior members of her office became a less-frequent presence at CompStat and other meetings with law-enforcement partners. (Mosby’s office did not respond to requests for official comment.)

In her campaign, Mosby called for diverting more nonviolent drug offenders into treatment. One halfway house used for this purpose was in West Baltimore, and drug dealers had zeroed in on its residents as a clientele, according to a member of Mosby’s staff. On March 17, 2015, Mosby’s office asked a police commander to target a nearby intersection for “enhanced” drug enforcement. A few weeks later, two officers on bike patrol a couple of blocks south of that intersection encountered a man named Freddie Gray.

Among the deaths at police officers’ hands that animated the Black Lives Matter movement in its early stages, Gray’s was uniquely ambiguous. He was not shot, as were Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. All that is known for certain is this: When he encountered the police officers, Gray — who had engaged in low-level dealing over the years — ran. When the police gave chase and tackled him, they found a small knife in his pocket and placed him under arrest. Gray was put in the back of a police van shackled and unbuckled, in violation of a new department policy. When the van arrived at the Western District’s headquarters, Gray was unconscious with a nearly severed spinal cord. He died seven days later.

Protesters took to the streets after Gray’s death. Batts, who had canceled a European vacation he was scheduled to take the previous week, appealed to Hogan’s new state police chief for reinforcements, but he received an offer of only about 120 officers, far fewer than he hoped for. The demonstrations proceeded mostly peacefully for a week until Saturday, April 25, when rowdy baseball fans headed to Camden Yards — including out-of-town Red Sox fans — taunted a group of protesters who had marched into downtown. In the mayhem that ensued, some teenagers and young men smashed in police cruisers’ windshields and bar windows and looted a 7-Eleven.

The police held back, making only about a dozen arrests. It appeared as if Batts wanted to set himself apart from the heavy-handed tactics in Ferguson, where anti-riot police officers bristled with military hardware. That night, Batts, who declined to be interviewed on the record for this article, hailed his officers’ limited response to the disorderly crowd amassed downtown. “We’re taking our time to give them the opportunity to leave,” he told reporters.


The approach was notably different two days later, the day of Gray’s funeral. The police were on edge over two separate rumors — a social-media call for a youth “purge,” or rampage, into downtown after school let out, and talk of gangs uniting to attack police officers. The F.B.I. quickly determined that the second threat was baseless, but Batts responded heavily to the first rumor, sending 300 officers to confront students at a big west-side transit hub after school and stand guard outside the adjacent shopping mall. Someone in authority — to this day, officials won’t say who — ordered a shutdown of transit service. Some of the stranded teenagers started throwing rocks and bricks at the police, who lacked proper protective gear and had received little riot-response training. Before long, a CVS pharmacy a mile away was on fire.

{snip} That Friday, Mosby — whose policing request may very well have led to Gray’s arrest — held a televised news conference announcing a long list of serious charges against six officers {snip}.

Her announcement of charges — based on an investigation her own office conducted, not trusting the department’s — helped stanch further unrest, but it delivered a profound blow to morale among rank-and-file officers, who were already aggrieved over their leadership’s handling of the riot, in which 130 officers were injured. Officers bridled at the ringing, declamatory tone of her announcement. {snip}


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.

Late that month, Batts admitted he was having trouble getting officers to do their job. “I talked to them again about character and what character means,” he told me and other reporters following a City Council hearing. He grew so mortified over the pullback that he started wearing suits instead of his uniform. By July’s end, 45 people had been killed during the month, and Rawlings-Blake had replaced Batts with Davis. The department was hemorrhaging officers now, at all ranks.


Across Baltimore, there was by then a mounting sense that whatever path there was to be found out of the city’s chaos, its residents were going to have to find it themselves — that the authorities were no longer up to the task. The lawlessness that followed the police pullback had persisted, and the city ended 2015 with 342 homicides, a 62 percent increase over the year before, within a dozen deaths of the worst year of the 1990s. Ninety-three percent of the victims were black. The rate at which detectives were able to close homicide cases fell from 50 percent in 2013 to 30 percent, as residents grew even warier of calling in tips or testifying.

In July 2016, Mosby’s office dropped all remaining charges against officers in the Gray case, after trials resulted in three acquittals and one hung jury. It was that August that the Department of Justice released its 163-page report on the Police Department, a result of a yearlong investigation it opened at the request of Rawlings-Blake after Gray’s death. The report concluded that the police had engaged in “a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.” The police’s pedestrian stops were disproportionately focused on African-Americans. They frequently patted down or frisked people “without identifying necessary grounds to believe that the person is armed and dangerous.” Baltimore officers used “overly aggressive tactics that unnecessarily escalate encounters, increase tensions and lead to unnecessary force,” the report stated.

The report affirmed years’ worth of civilian complaints about the department. But it also essentially ignored Barksdale and Bealefeld’s largely successful efforts to move toward a more targeted policing approach. It suggested that mass arrests led inexorably to Gray’s death and the protests, when in fact by 2014, arrests had been halved from a decade earlier. Barksdale was especially livid about the report’s suggestion that the department, which is roughly 40 percent black, was prejudiced because it arrested mostly African-Americans in many parts of town. “Now a cop in a black community is wrong because he confronts black people?” he told me.

He was also confounded by the report’s mockery of the department’s crackdowns on dice games, a frequent target of robberies and shootings. “Dude, you can’t have [expletive] open-air dice games,” he said. Armed robbers “want to stick that up, and if they have a shotgun and buckshot, you’ll have six or seven victims.” The failure of the report’s authors to grasp this, he said, betrayed a fundamental ignorance of local realities. “They have no understanding of what these things mean in Baltimore,” he said.

By that point, Baltimore had elected yet another new mayor: Catherine Pugh, who won the Democratic primary that April — in Baltimore, the only election that matters — after Rawlings-Blake opted not to run for re-election. {snip}

Very few people knew what to expect from Pugh. A longtime state legislator, she had won mostly by virtue of not being Sheila Dixon, who, having served her community-service sentence, ran again for her old job and narrowly lost. Pugh’s inscrutability extended to her bearing — she spoke in muffled tones, and her bangs often hung so low as to almost cover her eyes.


Pugh seemed overwhelmed by the continuing violence. It was not until August 2017 that she announced her plan to counter it. It would be built around daily meetings to focus city services in high-crime areas — which she dubbed the Violence Reduction Initiative — as well as the addition of a Boston-based program for at-risk young people called Roca, and the expansion of Safe Streets, which deploys ex-offenders as “violence interrupters.”

At the core of Pugh’s plan was the notion that crime was driven by root causes. This was true, but it risked overlooking the most immediate dilemma: People inclined toward lawbreaking increasingly thought they could do so with impunity. Delivery of basic services to address root-cause problems was also undermined by the departure of key city officials, as word spread that Pugh was not easy to work for.

By this point, it was plain that the surge in violence was not simply going to abate. Robberies and burglaries had also risen sharply. The city’s population was falling again, nearing a 100-year low with less than 615,000 in a census estimate released in March 2017. There were other, more ambient signs of disorder: the dirt bikes, squeegee boys at intersections. The city’s bike-sharing program was so plagued with vandalism that it was eventually shut down.


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.”


There were 17 homicides in a single week in late September. The year would end with 309 homicides — the fourth straight year above 300. It was the early 1990s all over again — or even worse, considering that the city was now registering comparable numbers despite having 100,000 fewer people living in it.

In mid-November, Pugh announced her choice for the next commissioner: Joel Fitzgerald, the police chief in Fort Worth, Tex. But reporters at The Sun discovered overstatements in his résumé; the City Council expressed doubts about confirming him; and he himself seemed ambivalent. Finally, after Christmas, with the city in its eighth month without a permanent commissioner, Pugh told reporters that she was considering bringing back Tony Barksdale, as head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.


The decree’s demands had made it too difficult for officers to clear drug corners, he said. He was hearing from his former colleagues that loiterers were already reciting the limits it imposed on the officers to them on patrol, mockingly. (I had heard similar reports from a community activist who favored the decree.) Its broadened definition of “use of force” — physical actions that officers had to document in reports, which went on their records and would be scrutinized — made officers less likely to bother engaging physically.

“What do you think happens when these guys see the cops not getting out of their car?” Barksdale said. “Years ago, if I pulled up and said ‘Let’s move,’ they moved. Now who has the control? They have control.” Citizens lose trust in the police not only if they abuse their authority but also if they do nothing about people wreaking havoc on their community. “Look at the number of bodies,” he said. “We’re losing horribly in Baltimore City.”