Baltimore Police Overhaul Challenged By Murder Crisis Baltimore's stubbornly high murder rate is causing some residents to lose faith in efforts to change policing in the city. They say it has become an excuse for police inaction.
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Baltimore Police Overhaul Challenged By Murder Crisis

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Baltimore Police Overhaul Challenged By Murder Crisis

Baltimore Police Overhaul Challenged By Murder Crisis

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Baltimore is closing in again on 300 murders. It has passed that grim milestone every year since 2015. That was the year of the Freddie Gray riots, which led to the current effort to reform Baltimore police. The unrelenting carnage in the neighborhoods has eroded residents' faith in a kind of police reforms that have been pushed in big cities since Ferguson. NPR's Martin Kaste has our story which includes some strong language.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Kinji Scott is a minister and a community activist. He's riding through his neighborhood in Baltimore's Northwestern district.

KINJI SCOTT: You'll see homicide right there. See that? - right there.

KASTE: Scott's pointing out some balloons tied to a lamppost. It's a memorial. Other murder sites are unmarked, but he has them memorized.

SCOTT: A man was killed right there in the middle street by that tree. There's two people killed right there.

KASTE: The other man in this car, the one driving, is Anthony Barksdale. He's a retired Baltimore cop. He was deputy commissioner in the years when crime was dropping. Now he spends his time blogging and tweeting about what he sees as the inaction of Baltimore police. He's frustrated at what he's now seeing in the streets that he used to patrol.

ANTHONY BARKSDALE: And look at this. Look at this corner. When I worked, I'd pull up and say clear the corner.

KASTE: Here, he's talking about a group of people hanging out at a known trouble spot. He says Baltimore cops used to clear corners like this to reduce the likelihood of a drive-by or walk-up shooting. Barksdale turns up another street and then practically jumps out of his seat.

BARKSDALE: Look over there. You've got people selling drugs. And the cop is sitting right there...

SCOTT: They're sitting on the police car.

BARKSDALE: ...And they sat on the damn police car. That's de-policing.

SCOTT: Just like the ones you saw...

BARKSDALE: This is what you're seeing. This is de-policing.

KASTE: De-policing - in law enforcement, this is a touchy word. You hear it mostly from conservatives and critics of the Black Lives Matter movement. People who say the protesting has made police too cautious, that it's cleared the way for killers in places like Baltimore and Chicago. But here in this car, the de-policing word is being used by two black men. What's more, Kinji Scott, the community activist, says this.

SCOTT: People are less concerned about police reform right now than they are about their own public safety. That's why it pisses me off when people keep talking about reform. We're talking about our safety and being able to walk out our houses without being afraid of being shot.

KASTE: And the man they blame for all this - the police commissioner, Kevin Davis.

KEVIN DAVIS: I've heard those sentiments out there, particularly from the peanut galleries of the world, about the police officers de-policing or taking a knee.

KASTE: Davis, who's white, is the face of the police reform process in Baltimore. He was hired from outside after the riots. And now he's implementing the federal consent decree that was negotiated with the Justice Department in January, the last of the Obama-era police reform deals.

DAVIS: This profession can no longer occupy geographies with cops and stop everyone who moves and hopes of catching a few bad guys.

KASTE: And Davis says this new approach is doing some good things. There are fewer complaints now about excessive force and fewer shootings by officers.

But reform also faces some serious headwinds. Rank-and-file cops are still angry about the failed prosecution of six officers connected with the in-custody death of Freddie Gray. There's tension with the union and fallout from new police corruption scandals. Still, the greatest challenge to reform is the stubborn murder rate. It's a tension that Davis recognizes.

DAVIS: Just like people don't want to see dead bodies on their streets and they don't want to see drug dealers on their corners, they also don't want to be mistreated by police officers. They also don't want their sons and grandsons being pulled out of their car and arrested for contempt-of-cop offenses. So we have to do both.

KASTE: The thing about this debate in Baltimore and in other big cities like New Orleans and Chicago is that everyone agrees on the big-picture goals. Police should be respectful and act constitutionally. The arguments come when you talk about specific tactics in specific places, say, the old Baltimore practice of clearing corners.

SEAN SHULER: When they saw police, it was just - OK, it's time to leave.

KASTE: That's Sean Shuler, also a resident of the Northwestern district, recalling how corner clearing used to work as opposed to now when the cops show up.

SHULER: They pull up, and you still got 20 people sitting there.

KASTE: Is that bad or good?

SHULER: It's bad.


SHULER: It's bad because if you letting all these guys stand around that mean more things is going to happen. So soon as the officer pulls off, it's going to be a shooting.

KASTE: Shuler is black, and he wants police to be respectful. For example, he didn't like the way plainclothes cops here used to jump out of cars to harass people in the neighborhood. But given how bad things are right now, he thinks some of the old tactics do make sense even if they run afoul of the federal consent decree. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Baltimore.


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