Baltimore: It’s so much worse than you think

July 9, 2015
Demonstrators rally at city hall in Baltimore, Maryland

Demonstrators at city hall in Baltimore, Maryland May 3, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Things have been a bit rough of late on the streets of Charm City, as Baltimore calls itself — much to the amusement of nearly everyone who hears those words. In the month after Freddie Gray’s death, with six law-enforcement officers charged in connection with the incident, more people were murdered than in any month in 25 years — 42 or 43 are the accepted totals now. (As this is Baltimore, no one can agree on the actual number of dead.)

In that same period, more than 100 shootings occurred. The city has logged 144 murders in the first six months of 2015 — 74 since the Gray incident — a nearly 50 percent spike in murders from the same period last year. Three more people were killed Tuesday night in a shooting downtown near the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The deaths raised the homicide total to 155 for the year. Yet police responses to crimes and arrests have dropped from 2,677 in April, the month of Gray’s death, to 1,531 in May.

Gray allegedly died as the result of what the cops here call “a rough ride.” It  was not the first time that I had heard this term.

Demonstrators take to the the streets of Baltimore, Maryland

Demonstrators in the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, May 1, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

In the early 1980s, two off-duty cops worked security in the downtown Baltimore high-rise where I worked at the Associated Press office. We were almost always open, and we always had free coffee — a powerful inducement for the constabulary to visit us.

Our visitors were central-casting Baltimore cops — tough, profane and bigoted. We assumed half of what they told us was exaggerated, and the rest completely untrue.

One drove what was then still called a paddy wagon. He was the first person I ever heard speak of a “rough ride.” Baltimore prosecutors say Gray went for a rough ride in a police wagon on April 12, and died a week later from spinal injuries that appear to have been sustained while in police custody.

By now, most Americans have heard of Gray, the alleged rough ride and the riots following his death. A rough ride, as it was explained to us back at in the AP office, involved putting a prisoner in the back of the wagon and driving him around at what the police euphemistically called “a high rate of speed” so that the passenger in the back of the wagon — basically a metal box — bounced around like a pinball. Sharp turns, braking, quick acceleration, more turns, more braking. The ride may be made rougher if the passenger is restrained, as Gray was (handcuffed or legs tied but not lashed down).

Baltimore Police officers clear the intersection of W North and Pennsylvania Avenues following demonstrations in Baltimore, Maryland

Baltimore Police officers clear an intersection following demonstrations in Baltimore, Maryland, May 1, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

It’s a venerable practice. The traveler would arrive at central booking worse for wear.

Even the city’s police commissioner acknowledged that Gray was the victim of a rough ride. But whether he sustained his injuries at that time we do not know. Two months after the death of the 25-year-old Gray, most questions remain unanswered. It is widely conceded in the city that it will be a long, long time before any of this is resolved.

The Baltimore Sun recently got its hands on a copy of Gray’s autopsy report. It indicated that he suffered a single “high-energy injury” to his neck and spine, most likely as a result of a rough ride. But that report will likely be much contested.

Meanwhile, there is widespread public feeling that the police have stopped policing. This may in no small way be because of aggressive citizens who have taken to stalking cops with cameras.

Baltimore sustained $20 million in damages from the rioting (unless you believe that true figure might be higher), but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has declined to offer disaster relief. Nothing seems to have gone right in the past two months.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican businessman who was elected largely because he faced a lackluster Democrat, and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have been sparring nonstop. Baltimore is a poor city surrounded by five relatively prosperous counties, and many residents of those counties regard Baltimore as a deadbeat relative with his hand out.

Down at Baltimore police headquarters, Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, an African-American who came here from Oakland – and who was fired Wednesday — had a relationship with his officers that was fractious, at best. Batts recently published an opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun that did nothing to calm the situation. The Fraternal Order of Police has been extremely critical of him and his handling of the Gray incident. Many rank-and-file cops believe the brass downtown do not support them — especially since six officers (three black,  three white) are facing charges that could lead to prison.

Batts’ op-ed piece reminded the city (and the police) that his first duty here (the one he was hired for) was to reform the police department and rebuild relationships with communities around the city.

He was brought to Baltimore, Bates wrote, because “the cycle of scandal, corruption and malfeasance seemed to be continuing without abatement.” He cited some of the city’s most celebrated incidents of corruption, including police robbing drug suspects and an extensive towing scandal that rocked the city a few years ago.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake speaks next to Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis during a news conference in Baltimore

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis during a news conference in Baltimore, Maryland, July 8, 2015. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

On Wednesday, after the three shooting deaths near the University of Maryland and the release of  the Baltimore police union’s review that criticized the police response to the April rioting over Gray’s death, saying commanders let unrest spiral into arson and looting, Batts was dismissed. The mayor replaced him with Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, whose extensive experience in law enforcement is in suburban Baltimore and Washington — not Baltimore city.

Baltimore is accustomed to turnover in the police commissioner’s office. Davis is the seventh in less than 15 years. One former police commissioner, who later appeared as a police detective in the critically acclaimed cable series The Wire, actually went to jail on corruption charges.

Generally, “Baltimorons,” as H.L. Mencken dubbed them, do not need to be reminded that theirs is a city with a certain amount of corruption, whether it’s rogue cops, the last mayor who resigned in a corruption scandal (she’s seeking re-election) or a weird citywide speed-camera controversy that involved millions of dollars. The administrator of the city’s free downtown bus shuttle and water-taxi system was sent to federal prison last month on a bribery and money-laundering conviction.

A CVS pharmacy on the corner of W North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue is seen a day after it was looted and set ablaze in protest for the death of Gray who died in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland

A CVS pharmacy on the corner of W North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue a day after it was looted and set ablaze in protest for the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

One consequence of the riots was that hundreds of thousands of doses of hard drugs are on the streets after an uncountable number of drug stores — 27 is the accepted figure — and two methadone clinics were looted. Baltimore already had a drug problem. Before he was replaced, Batts said there were enough illegal drugs on the streets to keep the city high for a year.

At the center of much of the controversy here is Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, a recently elected 35 year-old rookie with little criminal experience. Her husband represents the city council district where Gray was injured. The Gray case is a daunting debut.

The lawyers defending the six police officers have blasted what they perceive as the prosecutor’s gaffes and the “media frenzy” here as they campaign for a change of venue.

In recent weeks, Mosby might have benefited from a handler. She appears to enjoy the limelight. After the riots, she appeared on stage with Prince at a concert to commemorate Gray, was interviewed by Vogue magazine, photographed by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz (yes, that Annie Leibovitz) and served as ringmaster for a circus. That last move prompted an obvious headline: “From Media Circus to Real Circus.”  To add to the weirdness, a videotape surfaced of Mosby on Judge Judy when she was a student. She won that case. Mosby’s due to address a national meeting of the NAACP in Philadelphia this week.

Police stand guard outside Camden Yards as protesters gather for a rally to protest the death of Freddie Gray who died following an arrest in Baltimore

Police stand guard outside Camden Yards as demonstrators rally to protest the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, April 25, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

There are days when Baltimore seems like material for a sequel to Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.  In late June, the mayor, who was heavily criticized for her handling of the riots, was named president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors at their meeting in San Francisco. The Baltimore media’s response was  to complain that she was three times zones away while the city’s violence continued to spike and gripe that she should fix Baltimore before she seeks to advise the nation.

Meanwhile, the Gray killing continues to haunt Baltimore. Citizens from suburbia and out of state write to the Baltimore Sun and various websites vowing they will never come to the city again. Attendance at public events is off. Students accepted at local colleges and universities are said to be thinking twice about coming here.

Baltimore woke up on the Monday after the July 4 weekend to read a lively op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun by a citizen who said he’d been mugged and his bicycle stolen. That’s not a big deal here. What was a big deal was that after first getting the run-around from the 911 operator, he walked to the southwestern district police station. There, he was told the station was closed from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. For safety reasons. He complained to the police, and they argued that he’d actually been mugged in another district (an old police trick here) and took him there. But as it would happen, that station was also closed for safety reasons. The op-ed complaint seemed to work. On Tuesday, the police said the district stations would remain open 24 hours a day.

I went to the supermarket on the first day of summer. It had rained hard during the night. Baltimore is like the tropics when the weather is like this — day after day of high humidity and temperatures in the 90s. Even early in the morning, the city is like a steam bath.  I said to the clerk who waited on me, an older black woman, that we’d had a lot of rain last night. But instead of the usual check-out-line small talk, we began to speak of Charleston, South Carolina, and Baltimore. She looked at me sadly and, referring to the heavy rain, said, “God is weeping for the country. God is weeping for Baltimore.”


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Give them room to destroy! Isn’t that what the mayor ordered? They did a pretty damn good job. I would think she would be proud of her work as the looting and destruction were substantial. The drugs on the street are completely on her shoulders.

Posted by Yagolian | Report as abusive

the mayor fired the black police chief who was executing her orders and now hired a white cop, seriously thats her strategy to attract investment or to secure the city, and then they call us the racists

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

There is no evidence that Freddy Gray suffered from a “rough ride”. His autopsy revealed a single trauma to his neck. This author’s is serving up the rankest speculation as fact. Shame on Corbett! Typical lying liberal huckster.

Posted by gshenry | Report as abusive

Every day millions of people go to work. Tens of millions of transactions take place and billions of calls, emails, and texts are sent across the city of Baltimore. Some of the greatest hospital systems in the country are in the city and miracles are performed there every day. People are being served food, guests check in and out of hotels, boats at the marinas are launched and concerts are performed throughout the Baltimore metro area. Yet somehow the city defines itself from one incident, one criminal, one day several months ago in April. Baltimore’s world has come to a stand still, people’s lives are ruined, changed, interupted because they can’t cope, can’t move on, can’t go about their day. As if their lives stood still on April 12th 2015. Th greatest day in Baltimore’s history, ever! How sad…….

Posted by hatefulpric | Report as abusive

joev11 ponders: “Why should police risk being killed by renegade savages when they can stay away and protect themselves and let the animals kill themselves off?”

Good point. Why do we even need police? Fire them all, and make them get real jobs.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Not to worry all. Dave Simon is no doubt taking copies notes for his next bestselling book. His biggest problem may be too much material.

Posted by mjObserver | Report as abusive

We’ll see a great deal of deck shuffling and chair rearranging over the coming months.

You’re supposed to be distracted.

Act the part, will you?

Posted by IambcPentaMastr | Report as abusive

When are they going to fire that nitwit prosecutor?

Posted by 4ever49 | Report as abusive

Yeah I get censored all the time by Reuters, probably for using negative sounding words (GASP).

Meanwhile, overt racism from bottom feeders like the bigot who calls himself LetBalanceCome gets published right away.


Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

“Baltimore sustained $20 million in damages from the rioting (unless you believe that true figure might be higher), but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has declined to offer disaster relief.”

Why should the taxpayers in any city other than Baltimore and any state other than Maryland pay for what those black savages did? Screw Baltimore and Maryland too.

Posted by JohnRingaux | Report as abusive

I don’t think the prosecutor has alleged Gray was given a “rough ride.” There also seems to be nothing in the published excerpts from the autopsy report to support the conclusion that the van was operated with intent to injure. Here is the seldom quoted entry in the report that undermines the “rough ride” claim: “Due to the failure of following established safety procedures through acts of omission, the manner of death is best certified as “Homicide” (Freddie Gray Autopsy, Baltimore Sun, 6-24-15.) Operating the van with intent to punish would hardly be an “act of omission.” The assistant medical examiner, Carol Allan, is obviously referring to the “omission” of failing to restrain Gray. It now appears she was misinformed about this being an “established safety procedure.” According to Brian Kuebler of ABC2 Baltimore, the rule change requiring restraints was not communicated to the “command,” to be announced to the rank-and-file at roll call, until 2 days after Gray’s arrest (Did Baltimore Peace Officers. . . Know about New Seat Belt Policy?, 5-27-15.) It appears that Gray sustained his “high-energy injury” as a result of losing his balance and falling, having injudiciously gotten to his feet, while the van was in motion.

Posted by cyp411 | Report as abusive

I’m reminded of a recent news story in which academics have now determined the use of logic and reason is something which has historical given whites an unfair advantage ( according to the version I read). Is this Baltimore situation something for which whites must now expect a bill to be tendered for the damages and the institution of some sort of ‘solution’?

Posted by Forzati | Report as abusive

Baltimore could employ the actual residents to police their own communities. . .under the direction of the gang leader in control of that community. . .which would just be a way to organize the community. . .Obama style.

Posted by rbblum | Report as abusive

Maybe the mayor should consider resigning for the sake of all Baltimoreans.

Posted by whatisthat | Report as abusive

The writer of this story forgot to mention that the mayor told police to stand down during the riots. The leadership in Baltimore is very bad.

Posted by Jayredd | Report as abusive

If those six cops are Charged and imprisoned for doing their jobs I hope every cop in state walks. If they don’t walk then all police will be vulnerable to politicians. It could happen to any officer at anytime. Go to a robbery and shoot a kid who has a gun pointed at you and you the cop could go to jail for life? Are you kidding me? All of the police are vulnerable and much make a stand or their city could be next.

Posted by noll | Report as abusive

Cops aren’t afraid of cameras…they are sick of their leaders not backing them up when doing their and jobs…why should they risk life and limb for idiots?

Posted by andy2011 | Report as abusive

As a Canadian who spends 6 month of the year outside the Country, I have taken both the US and Mexico off my travel list as TOO dangerous.

When you elect a president who has an agenda other than to “ruin” your country I would visit again after he/she cleans the place up.

Just think how much smarter, richer and safer your country would be now if you had elected Sarah Palin 8 years ago.

Posted by EricJordan | Report as abusive

Well written article. However, for me, the article is empty. Baltimore’s troubles did not start with Mr. Grey’s arrest and death. Does anyone remember there was another person in the paddy wagon during this rough ride? Did he get injured? I also heard there was GPS data on the paddy wagon. Don’t you think GPS data may give you an idea of how rough a ride Mr. Grey endured? The author has created a narrative of police guilt before most facts are know and reported. You would think this journalist would know these basic facts. This journalist seems to think that the crime and violence in Baltimore is all in response to Police actions with Mr. Grey. I would wager a bet and say that the spike in violence is a direct result of the police not trying to stop crime and simple responding to the report of a crime. IN other words, the Mayor and Commissioner told the Police to back off. They have and the criminals now run the street. Go figure.

Posted by ddn123 | Report as abusive

A highly concentrated and segregated poor population, angry and/or discouraged, add a police force infamous for brutality and you get the tragic situation of Baltimore. Bad players on both sides.

Few of us have been born and raised in such conditions and therefore cannot truly understand how such circumstances effect a person’s outlook and behavior. Yet comments here and elsewhere reveal an ugly racism, focused on denigrating Black people in general and the City of Baltimore in particular. These commentators, safe in anonymity, represent the worst part of American society.

Thankfully they’re not in the majority. And today’s a good day, that flag representing slavery and treason is coming down in SC.

Posted by distancematters | Report as abusive

Democrat Dystopia = See Detroit

Posted by IambcPentaMastr | Report as abusive

welcome to Negrolandia. You shouldn’t believe travel brochures. It’s not a nice place.

Posted by MrSandlewould2U | Report as abusive

Baltimore should hire all black cops because they aren’t expected to be politically correct. Only whites are required to be “culturally sensitive”.

Posted by OracleJones | Report as abusive

Well when your citizens placed drug dealing ahead of police protecting the community and working to prevent the drug dealers from selling their poison to your children this is the path YOU have put your city on. The idea that if one flees from, fights, assaults and injures or kills the police officer trying to conduct a lawful arrest THEN you win is what has led you to this point. The idea that arresting some one for a crime and then not letting them to just walk away is racist has led you to this point. Not these old war stories related to you by some journalist who IGNORES the real reason for your problems, but an acceptance of crime and predatory activity by members of your community led to this. If I was living in any community I would want my police NO MATTER their color to arrest the drug dealing scum and gang thugs that prevent my children from being able to live a relatively normal life, to be able to play in front of their house NO MATTER WHAT COLOR the police were. The laws are simple to obey and understand no matter what color one is, no math, chemistry or calculus to answer before you decide if you WANT to break the law or not. Society has to decide who to align them self with criminals who prey on them, their children and their neighbors because of their skin color or the police who are not attacking doctors, lawyers, engineers or any person obeying the law but are fighting many times for their lives to lawfully arrest CRIMINALS who are preying on the same ignorant clowns protesting the police and looting your neighborhoods. Its the difference between living in a civilized society and living in an anarchy ridden jungle where only those willing to commit the worst acts of humanity survive against the rest of us who want to live a good responsible and civilized life.

Posted by MikeWr | Report as abusive

When people in Mogadishu watch the BBC news about Baltimore they go:

“whoa…whoa.whooaaaaaa….holy cow that’s worse than here.”

that’s the Baltimore the rest of the USA knows.

Posted by BobJones2 | Report as abusive

The demographics of Baltimore and Ferguson will be the same tomorrow as they were yesterday. Demcrates everywhere, with no hope of change in the voting habits of the residents. Consequenly, ignorance will prevail. So sad.

Posted by ArribaJuarez | Report as abusive

gshenry assures: “There is no evidence that Freddy Gray suffered from a “rough ride”. His autopsy revealed a single trauma to his neck.”

Yeah well, you’re a little behind the curve. Their own prosecutor (the attorneys usually on the cops’ side) found enough evidence to arraign the officers on criminal misconduct and murder charges. Your cry-baby apologetics for these pigs is revealing.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

So why did the black mayor appoint a white chief of police? Are black LEO not capable of doing the job? that or there are no qualified black LEO.

Posted by whatsnew | Report as abusive