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The Long, Reenergized Fight to Improve Policing in Baltimore

A Baltimore police officer stands guard outside of the Western District police station as men hold their hands up in protest during a march for Freddie Gray on April 22, 2015.

Baltimore never was an easy place; racial tensions are baked into the crust of the city’s history. Since progressive change always comes slowly and incrementally, if it comes at all, efforts to reform police activities in as recalcitrant a place as Baltimore can’t be expected immediately. If they could, Freddie Gray might still be alive, and reports on this topic—such as “Toward Trust: Grassroots Recommendations for Police Reform in Baltimore,” issued last week by my Center for American Progress colleague Ben Jealous—would be unnecessary.

Efforts to improve how Baltimore polices its citizens are not new. Quite the contrary, the Campaign for Justice, Safety, and Jobs—a coalition of community activists in Baltimore—has been demanding police accountability for years. But its activities gained momentum last April following the death of Freddie Gray, age 25, who died from a spinal injury presumably inflicted by the police during an arrest. His death led to violent rioting in parts of the city, unseen since those that occurred in the wake of the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The city will soon conduct trials of six police officers charged in Gray’s death.

Jealous, the former CEO and president of the Baltimore-based NAACP, worked with the campaign to produce a set of recommendations whose goal is to rally community support around ideas to make the Baltimore Police Department “more accountable to residents, more transparent about its internal workings, and ultimately more effective at preventing and solving serious crimes.”

The recommendations are:

  1. Fire police officers who have demonstrated corruption or unnecessary violence
  2. Remove the gag order on victims of police misconduct
  3. Distribute body cameras to all police officers within one year and ensure that the public has access to footage
  4. Improve community policing by prioritizing, measuring, and incentivizing problem solving and community satisfaction
  5. Publish all Baltimore Police Department policies online
  6. Ensure that every police officer is trained in de-escalation techniques

I hold tender feelings for Baltimore. I was married while living in Charm City. I worked there for several years, jump-starting my fledgling career as a journalist. My daughter was born there nearly 30 years ago.

But loving Baltimore is a complicated affair, especially for African Americans such as myself. Indeed, no less an authority than the city’s former police commissioner, Anthony W. Batts, stunned national audiences by comparing the city’s racist present to the atmosphere that existed in the 1950s and 1960s.

“When I go to Baltimore, on the East Coast, I’m dealing with 1950s-level black-and-white racism,” then-Commissioner Batts said during a national task force on policing convened by President Barack Obama last February in Phoenix, Arizona. “It’s taken a step back. Everything’s either black or everything’s white, and we’re dealing with that as a community.”

As Batts and others in the know fully understand, Baltimore’s racial woes did not begin last April after Gray’s suspicious death following his arrest by city police. There is a long, sad history of racial segregation and discrimination that stretches back to long before Gray ever walked the city’s streets.

To cite just one regrettable example, Baltimore’s city leaders enacted the nation’s first racially restrictive zoning law in 1911, effectively forbidding one racial group from buying a house on a block that was already predominately occupied by families of another race. Essentially, the mayor and city council agreed, at the turn of the 20th century, that mixing races in residential communities was a bad idea.

Despite the Supreme Court’s 1917 Buchanan v. Warley decision, which struck down the ordinance, Baltimore’s political leaders sought to maintain segregated neighborhoods by allowing homeowners to impose covenants barring the sale of homes—say, in the largely white Roland Park community—to black buyers. As my colleague Bryce Covert made clear in a recent ThinkProgress post, the sorry state of race relations in Baltimore “has much to do with deliberate policy choices related to housing.”

Or as Lawrence Brown, a health policy and management professor at Baltimore’s Morgan State University, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun: “We’re the genesis of where there was the apartheid practice in the United States. Baltimore is a city that has not escaped the legacy of these very restricted apartheid-type legacies.”

To be sure, Baltimore is not alone and other cities have racial issues that are equally alarming, or worse. Still, as Jealous writes, “The eyes of the nation are on Baltimore.” At this precise moment, the recommendations in his report offer instructions for beginning to knit together the city’s fraying fabric in the weakest spot: the policing of its citizens.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.