1 year after Freddie Gray, police work to heal city's wounds
BALTIMORE – A year after the death of Freddie Gray, a small part of his legacy can be seen at a southwest Baltimore recreation center, where the pounding of basketballs and squeak of sneakers echo off the walls as young black men in shorts and sweats face off.
Ken Hurst, a white policeman, watches from the side, a bum knee the only thing that keeps him from playing. He visits the game each week, not to make arrests but to make friends. "I need them to realize I'm not out here to lock everyone up," he says. "I'm here to rebuild trust."
Seldom in the city's history has that trust been so tenuous: Gray, a 25-year-old black man from West Baltimore, died after his neck was broken April 12 in the back of a police van. Protests erupted and long-simmering tensions between the police and residents exploded into the worst riots and looting in more than four decades. The U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into allegations of unlawful arrests and excessive force.
In Baltimore and beyond, Gray's name became a rallying cry, representative of black men's mistreatment by police officers, and of the Baltimore department's own failings.
Police commissioner Anthony Batts was fired. His deputy — and replacement — Kevin Davis — promised to repair a relationship with the community that was so strained some say it's safer to run from police than take a chance on interacting with them. While some in the community remain skeptical, other say there has been progress.
Davis has implemented a mandatory, 40-hour community patrol class that teaches officers in training — and eventually, all officers — how to engage residents. Davis said he has also begun honoring officers each week for demonstrating "guardianship" — for forging strong bonds with residents, rather than making arrests.
"That's how far we've come this year," he says. "Would that have happened before Freddie Gray? Probably not.
"We can no longer just go occupy a geography, a poor minority neighborhood, and stop 300 people in the hopes of catching 10 bad guys," Davis said. "We're also looking at who we're hiring ... Are we hiring people with a service mind set, or people who watch too many cops and robbers television shows?"
Another initiative, the one that brought Hurst to the rec center, aims to get more officers out of their cars and walking the streets of Baltimore's most crime-ridden neighborhoods as full-time patrol officers.
Howard Hood is a 22-year-old black man who was born and raised in the neighborhood Hurst patrols, and he shows up to the rec center every Tuesday night.
"Not all cops want to see us dead or in jail. We need more officers to come out and feel comfortable being around us," he says.
An hour earlier, Hurst, blue-eyed with tanned skin and an easy smile, was walking along a commercial strip in the Irvington neighborhood, dotted with corner stores, liquor stores, cheap restaurants and a massive thrift shop. Spotting a group of young men loitering near a bus shelter, he gently but firmly told them to move along.
As he strolled down the block, a car stopped in the middle of the road and a young man popped his head out of the passenger window.
"Whassup Hurst?" he shouts, his smiling lips parted to reveal teeth plated with gold veneers.
As part of his routine, Hurst walks to a cellphone store to check in on the manager. On the way, 45-year-old Keith Hopkins, who sat in a wheelchair, a hand-rolled cigarette between his fingers, stopped the officer to chat.
"Hurst don't need a gun or a badge around here," he says. "He's one of the good ones."
In 2015, the city experienced the most violent year in its history, and the Southwestern District, Hurst's post, saw 51 killings — the most of any precinct except the Western District, where Gray was arrested.
"Police officers, a lot of them think that every guy standing on the corner is dealing drugs, which isn't true," Hurst said. "And the community, a lot of them out here think every police officer coming up to them is going to make them sit on the ground and cuss at them and treat them badly."
Community mistrust of police in Baltimore dates back decades. Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, mayor from 1999-2006, instituted a "zero tolerance" crime-fighting strategy that advocated "stop and frisk" practices and cracking down on lower-level crimes such as public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. In 2005, more than 100,000 people were arrested — roughly one sixth of the city's population — and a Baltimore grand jury found excessive arrests in poor black neighborhoods.
The city paid $870,000 to settle a lawsuit by people who said they were illegally arrested, and O'Malley's successors have moved away from zero-tolerance policing. The police commissioner says those days are over, but the hangover lingers.
Dorothy Cunningham, 58, the president of the Irvington Community Association, was instrumental in getting Hurst assigned to her district. Hurst, an eight-year veteran, is beloved in the neighborhood, and has already helped residents feel safer, she says.
"Maybe the police learned something from the unrest in the spring," Cunningham says.
Other officers struggle to blend into the communities they patrol, where residents are still fearful of police and critical of the department.
Across town, Jordan Distance, a black officer, walks a commercial strip surrounded by blocks dotted with abandoned buildings and vacant homes. The day before, five people were shot, one fatally, on his beat. The police had yet to identify a suspect.
"The shooting last night, there's so many vacants and alleys and nobody's going to tell me what he looks like," he says.
"There's that disconnect between us and the people. I don't know if it's because they're scared or what."
For Hurst, policing is only one aspect of the job. He hands out flyers advertising jobs and is helping transform a vacant property into a community center, complete with a computer lab, a police substation and workshop space.
"There's a guy who said, I'll come and teach them carpentry. Another guy in the neighborhood said he'd come in and help them with their homework," Hurst says.
"We'll put in a garden and when the vegetables are ripe we'll pick them and pass them out. We're trying," he says, "we're trying our best."
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