Baltimore: It’s so much worse than you think
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”