Baltimore’s deadliest month: Can the community still find peace?

The month of May has seen the most number of homicides in Baltimore since 1999, even as local officials struggle to forge lasting peace in the beleaguered community.

David Goldman/AP Photo/File
In this April 29, 2015 photo, protesters calling for the continued investigation into the death of Freddie Gray demonstrate outside the State Attorney's office in Baltimore. Violence in the city has surged in the aftermath of April's riots, and local officials are struggling to find ways to forge lasting peace amid tensions between black residents and local police.

May has been especially violent for Baltimore.

As of Wednesday morning, the city had seen 35 homicides, making this month its deadliest since 1999 and bringing the total number of homicides for the year to 108, the Baltimore Sun reported.

The surge in violence, which spiked over the Memorial Day weekend, comes in the wake of riots over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in April and follows last week’s indictment of six police officers in relation to Mr. Gray’s death. At the same time, local officials have struggled to find ways to forge lasting peace in the community amid tensions and resentments both old and new.

The city is “in the midst of a challenging time,” police commissioner Anthony W. Batts wrote in a letter to the community and elected officials Monday, the Sun reported.

“Please be assured that the Baltimore Police Department is moving aggressively to both address the increase in violence, as well [as] to modernize and better equip ourselves for the future,” he continued.

Earning trust

Despite his assurances to the public, Mr. Batts and his department face a long history of mistrust between Baltimore’s black community and local law enforcement.

“There’s a disconnect between the police department and community that’s built up over generations,” Terrence Rogers, a youth minister at a local Southern Baptist church, told USA Today. “People here don’t trust police.”

The same can be said of police-community relations in cities across the United States: Seven in 10 blacks and just under 40 percent of whites say that police departments around the country do a poor job of treating racial and ethnic groups equally, according to a Pew Research Center survey published last year.

Overcoming those perceptions is no easy task. Efforts must start from the ground up, and with a willingness to communicate and to change ingrained practices and beliefs, Ronald Hampton, former executive director of the National Black Police Association, told PBS.

“[T]he police departments are going to have to reach out to the very people that they serve every day to talk to them about, how do we build that relationship?” Mr. Hampton, who spent more than 20 years as a community relations officer for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, said. He added that law enforcement needs to challenge the institutional nature of policing by taking into account “customer satisfaction”:

If you ask the police officer, ‘Is policing doing what it’s supposed to do?’ Of course they’re going to say yes, because they’re doing it every day. But the real customer, the citizen, the person who lives in the community, the businessperson on the corner, they’re the person who actually has to be asked.

Some US cities are beginning to take initiative.

For instance, a number of departments, including Baltimore, have begun to implement the Fair and Impartial Policing program, which strives to address “the ill-intentioned police who produce biased policing and the overwhelming number of well-intentioned police in this country who aspire to fair and impartial policing, but who are human like the rest of us.”

The program connects officers to social scientists who help the former learn to be proactive in controlling their biases and making impartial decisions in the field.

Coffee with a Cop,” now underway in 48 states, also seeks to improve police-community relations by having local officers approach residents and offer them a chance to voice their concerns — and a complimentary cup of joe.

“Let’s go to where the people are, instead of having the people come to us,” Chris Cognac, a sergeant at Hawthorne Police Department in California, told CNN.

In Baltimore, Batts acknowledged that law enforcement needs to be proactive in getting community support. “We can’t demand that of citizens,” he told CNN affiliate WJZ. “We have to go out and earn that trust.”

A two-way street

At the same time, residents must be open to engaging in dialogue, and give local police a chance to do their jobs, columnist Ron Chimelis wrote in an op-ed for The Republican, based in Massachusetts.

“‘Not all cops are bad’ should not be required as a disclaimer to every forum,” Mr. Chimelis wrote. “If we are serious about engaging in that dialogue, there is a place for that side.”

That line may be a hard sell in Baltimore, where city police reported 28 shootings and nine homicides over the Memorial Day weekend alone, WJZ reported. Still, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in an emergency meeting held earlier this week with Batts and his staff, said that the city could not tolerate such violence, and that the community will need to do its part.

“My hope is the police will have the support they need from the community to be able to get some answers and bring some of these individual[s] to justice,” she said.

Change, however, will take time, work, and patience, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., wrote in an op-ed for CNN.

Challenging a decades-old system requires officials with “zero tolerance for racism, brutality and corruption in police departments,” and officers who “value the integrity of the badge over the unquestioning solidarity that has too often resulted in the protection of officers who have committed egregious acts,” Ms. Ifill wrote.

She continued:

Policing is, at its core, a service profession. Those we select for this difficult and dangerous job should not only demonstrate mental toughness, courage and smarts, but also integrity, maturity, empathy and a commitment to the communities they serve.

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