Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore resident who was fatally injured during his arrest by Baltimore police last April, became yet another tragic symbol for the Black Lives Matter movement when he passed away days later. Gray joins the ranks of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and perhaps countless other African American citizens who met their fate when a police officer pulled the trigger, or neglected them while in police custody.
Following Gray's death, unrest shook Baltimore. Once again, it seemed as though the entire country was debating the role police should play and the power they should have in America's neighborhoods, particularly minority neighborhoods. In response, the Maryland state government established a Public Safety and Policing Work Group to focus on police training, recruiting, hiring, and oversight. But did the average Baltimorean even know the work group had been formed?
While all of the group's eight meetings were open to the public, attendance was poor. All but one of the meetings took place in Maryland's capital city, Annapolis, about a 45-minute drive from Baltimore. No easy public transportation option between the two cities exists. Most of the work group's meetings also took place from 1 to 3 p.m., when the average adult is busy with work, school, or childcare. Though the sole Baltimore meeting opened up the floor to public testimony toward its end, nobody came forward.
A graffiti tribute to Freddie Gray at the housing project where he last lived.
Was it fair for people who live with regular police activity in their neighborhood not to have an accessible way to share their thoughts on reform? (The Baltimore Police Department maintains that it has been expanding its reach in asking these questions for "years.")
In January, shortly after the start of the state legislative session, the work group made more than 20 recommendations, which a lobbyist for the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police swiftly said the union opposed. That's not exactly surprising. Last May, Samuel Walker, a criminology professor and police expert at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, released a May report explaining how the Baltimore Police Union contract protects police officers from investigations and accountability.
In the introduction to his report, Walker writes:
In Baltimore, and in other cities and counties across the country, police union contracts contain certain provisions that impede the effective investigation of reported misconduct and shield officers who are in fact guilty of misconduct from meaningful discipline.
A marquee on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore's Upton neighborhood reads "Rest in Peace Freddie Gray."
Though a hearing for the next trial in the death of Freddie Gray is scheduled for Feb. 19, what remains absent from the push for police reform is many voices of the people from Baltimore's most notorious neighborhoods — notorious for police activity, notorious for crime, and notorious for poverty.
Take Freddie Gray's neighborhood. Gray grew up in Sandtown-Winchester, a majority-black, low-income neighborhood in West Baltimore that leads Maryland in its incarceration rates. According to numbers presented by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, more than 50 percent of Sandtown-Winchester residents are not employed. The median household income is about $24,000 and nearly 50 percent of students are chronically absent from school. The mortality rate for 15- to 24-year-olds is 19 per 1,000 youths. A third of all properties are vacant or abandoned. With three percent of the neighborhood's residents in state prison and Maryland taxpayers spending almost $300 million annually to incarcerate people from Baltimore, something isn't working.
"Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lock up Baltimore residents, rather than investing in their long-term well-being is reflected in an array of challenges facing Baltimore communities," states a February 2015 report on prison policies from the Justice Policy Institute.
The question at hand is what needs to change about the police presence in Baltimore, particularly in low-income black neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester. According to Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith, that is a question the department has been asking the community for a long time, whether at public safety forums or, more recently, on social media.
"It's a sexier topic now, but that doesn't change the fact that it's been a conversation we've been having for years," he says in a phone interview.
As a young woman, I was most interested in the ideas younger Baltimore women had for police reform — ideas they couldn't or hadn't expressed before the work group or directly to the police department, for various reasons. I set out to gather women's opinions, and here's what they said.
In Freddie Gray's Stomping Grounds
Walking the streets of Sandtown-Winchester and the nearby Upton and Penn-North neighborhoods, I stopped women on the street to talk to them about their ideas for police reform.
I knew better than to push a camera in anybody's face, but many women were still suspicious of me or afraid to talk. These are places where a steady police presence is the rule, not the exception. It's hard to go more than a couple of blocks without seeing a blue siren or another uniformed officer. One woman told me that she "doesn't talk to feds," while another woman's friend warned her not to be a "snitch."
Despite rejection after rejection, I persisted. I was lucky to have these women allow me to talk to them and take their photograph. Women in other neighborhoods across the city also replied to my calls on Twitter and Facebook. Here are their responses:
What really has to change is the relationship the police have with the people. It's always the same police, so they know people's names and faces. The environment's sublet, but everybody's got to have respect. People are going to do what they're going to do. But they've got to change police training and the way they apprehend people.
[Police are] so aggressive and mean. Just because you see a black man on the corner doesn't mean he's doing something wrong. I want to ask [the task force] why are there so many cops? It shouldn't be like that. They're always trying to be there. Black lives matter.
Everything about the police needs to change. Their attitudes. Their work ethic. They need new training. They don't know how to treat people, especially blacks. I don't feel safe. We stay in the house. They target women, too. No respective [sic]. They shouldn't be so aggressive, they should be more considerate. They come straight into a situation hurting and that's not cool.
As for the Freddie Gray trial, it doesn't even matter what I think because at the end of the day, what's going to happen is going to happen.
[Police] don't have to be as harsh [as they are]. You don't got to treat them like animals when they're incarcerated. I'm a mom and I don't feel as safe as I should. There are pedophiles out there. Children go missing. [The police] could be more strict. There could be more stuff for [criminals] to do so they don't hang on the corners.
I feel like [the police] look at us differently. They judge us based on other people's mistakes ... Police need to make the community comfortable. Kids should want to go to the police when their mom's getting beaten. Parents and kids should feel like the police protect us, not like they're higher than that. I'm not like "F* the police." They should be the ones we go to when we're in trouble.
This is about more than race. After Freddie Gray, we should work as one for change. They have to promise us that they won't hurt us. They can start by coming by the schools and playing basketball or doing homework with the kids, you know?
Meanwhile, several of the women who agreed to talk to me said they would do so only if I didn't take their picture. They said they feared for their safety and their families' safety. Even if they only shared a few words, these women were convinced that their disclosure would come to haunt them. In place of their head shots, I have put in photos from Sandtown-Winchester and Penn-North.
I would say that police need to live in the area. That would make them more considerate of where they're serving.
The housing project where Freddie Gray lived.
They think because they're a higher power that they can do or say anything.
A flyer up on a vacant building on the main drag near where Freddie Gray lived.
It's hard because I have friends who are police officers and work in law enforcement, but I also know what's going on out here. Maybe they could observe more. The problem is that when they approach people, they can rile people up. I'm a law-abiding citizen and they're still mean to me. And there's a difference between city and [suburban] police. They need to understand the real reasons for why things are the way they are in this neighborhood. They're too removed from the community. People here are fighting just to live, just to survive, just to get some change to get on the bus. Understanding the community needs to be a part of their approach.
Another flyer up on a vacant building on the main drag near Freddie Gray's neighborhood.
They need to stop treating every black person like they're drug dealers.
On Social Media
I also reached out to Baltimore women on Facebook and Twitter for their ideas on police reform. The women who responded came from across the city, not just in or near Freddie Gray's neighborhood. Their statements below have been edited for length and clarity.
Capri, 23, of Charles Village
Baltimoreans weren't shocked at all about what happened to Freddie Gray while in police custody. It was just the tipping point after decades of institutional oppression and daily harassment. I am very hopeful that the implementation of the approved recommendations will allow Baltimoreans a chance to exhale and put us at ease.
However, it must be understood that Baltimoreans of color are an oppressed people and most are rightfully angry, hostile, and destructive due to their extremely poor living and health conditions. Police reform is a great start simply because it's forward movement towards much needed resolution, but until issues involving poverty, education, community restoration and employment are tackled, Baltimoreans will continue to react to the chaos that remains around them.
Shannon, 24, of East Baltimore
When the taskforce approved 22 recommendations for police reform, I believe they captured Marylanders' ears. [However] it takes more than just a plan, but a real revolution on police reform, a paradigm shift. Legislation must be changed in order to adapt to the contemporary society we live in. Times change, so should laws and policing. Policing must be transformed.
Katie, 33, of Mount Vernon
There is an actual, real problem surrounding prejudice in some police forces all across this country, and I hope this new task force will set a successful example for others to follow.
Baltimore City has many incredible officers who are kind, smart, outgoing, loving, and brave, who truly care about the city and its citizens. They work hard and put their lives on the line every day to protect us, and something like this would really help them succeed, and the right legislation will just bring the few bad apples to the surface.
Joyell, 27, of Reservoir Hill
Ironically, the "reforms" anticipate more police brutality and are creating a checklist to give the perception of change without repairing the relationship between law enforcement and communities, but not ending police overreach and excessive force. How many more Marylanders must be harmed or killed in order for equal protection to be afforded to all?
Charlotte, 24, of Old Goucher
The relationship between police and the citizens of Baltimore will not change until white supremacy, structural violence, and institutionalized racism are erased from our justice system and our police departments. A list of recommendations is not enough. We need more and we deserve more.
Qiara, 28, of Charles Village
This year, we have the FOP still not in support of any changes to police accountability, despite the cries of the people, and a governor who didn't believe these recommendations from the task force deserved a comment. I am tired — mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I have grown silent in my pursuits for change that I can no longer even envision happening.
I pose the question to our government: How much more do you believe your People of Color can endure? Our silence is growing and it may be taken as contentment, but I fear that our collective silence is turning into numbness and something far more insidious. I urge them to consider true change, not just to gain silence, but to truly give POC the humanity we deserve.
Makayla, 17, of northeast Baltimore
Instead of being hopeful, I am overwhelmingly skeptical of the sincerity of these proposals. Instead of being a truly concerted effort to change the systems behind the killings of Mya Hall, Tyrone West, and Freddie Grey, the 22 police reform recommendations seem to be a superficial feel-good moment for local officials to hide behind when their problematic policies are called into account.
I cannot help but to point out the reactionary nature of each of the 22 points, the implicit attempt to undermine the ongoing efforts of black grassroots organizations like Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and the fact that in comparison to demands that have come directly from the communities which are directly impacted by these policies, little effort was made by the workgroup to move beyond "reform" and onto the deconstruction of the systems that allow for police brutality to happen in the first place.
Images: Courtesy of Christine Stoddard, Qiara, Makayla, Charlotte, Joyell, Katie, Shannon, and Capri