BALTIMORE, MARYLAND — As protests and riots swept Baltimore last month in the latest demonstration of how racial tensions and unequal policing have taken hold of American cities, one man’s story garnered national attention. Twenty-five year old Freddie Gray’s face became a symbol of the community’s broken relationship with police and Americans across the country learned about a life ended tragically early in the hands of law enforcement.
But on a rainy Thursday night in June, Baltimore residents from across the city gathered at the University of Baltimore law school to share their own stories — stories that have not made the headlines and stories that did not prompt swift indictments, but stories that also portray the eroded trust and the diminished respect the community feels toward the police.
“There are other Freddie Grays out there that have experienced what I experienced, they just haven’t said anything,” Travis Robertson, a black Baltimore resident, told ThinkProgress at the community meeting.
The Department of Justice announced in early May that it would launch a full-scale investigation into the Baltimore police, a process that could take more than a year but could also result in system-wide reform if investigators were to find a pattern and practice of police using excessive force, making illegal stops, searches and arrests and overall discriminatory policing.
Last week, members of the DOJ’s investigatory team held a community meeting in Baltimore to hear from residents about their individual interactions with police and what they hope changes as a result of the federal investigation.
“We’ll look at data, we’ll do interview, do everything that we can to understand what has caused the source of mistrust here between the community and the Baltimore Police Department,” Anita Gupta, the acting head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, told the crowd of around 200 people. “Regardless of what we find, we know that the process itself is important. That’s where the community’s voice matters.”
As the media attention on Baltimore subsides, residents hope they will eventually see fixes to end the systematic problems that leave them and their friends, neighbors and family members victimized by police. ThinkProgress spoke with Baltimore residents at the community meeting about their experiences and why they turned to the DOJ to help: ‘He’s not here to defend himself’
In 2008, Darlene Cain’s 29-year-old son was shot and killed by Baltimore police officers. Police claimed that Dale Graham, a father of two young daughters, lunged at them with a knife, but Cain said she was told her son was unarmed and did not approach the officers.
Cain has become an advocate for her son, forming an organization for mothers of police brutality victims and traveling the country to share his story. Although the statute of limitations has passed and she can no longer file charges against the officer who fatally shot her son, she hopes the DOJ can help her find a way to find justice seven years after her loss.
“That’s why I’m here complaining and being a voice for my son because he’s not here to defend himself,” she told ThinkProgress.
Although Freddie Gray’s death was the trigger for the DOJ to take a closer look at Baltimore, 31 people died after encounters with police in Baltimore between 2010 and 2014, the highest in the state, according to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union. In February, 30-year-old Trayvon Scott died while in a police holding cell. In May 2014, George V. King died after police officers struck him with a Taser and in 2013, Tyrone West was killed during a routine a traffic stop, among many other similar stories.
“It just makes you relive it all over again,” she said. “We just had an incident in Owings Mills, a domestic dispute, and someone else doesn’t have a child today. Regardless of what their age is, somebody’s mother doesn’t have a child today and I just feel there are so many other ways that we can help things.”
At the time of his death, Graham was attending law school in Baltimore and was working to improve race relations at the school. He encouraged the black student union to let a white student join because he didn’t look at the color of a person’s skin, Cain said.
“I tell everyone when I speak — they killed the wrong son but they got the right mother.”
‘We want high quality policing that’s fair and effective’
Lawrence Brown told ThinkProgress that, living in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore and being involved in protests, he has witnessed first-hand the police department’s aggressive and militaristic practices. But in the weeks since the visible protests, he has heard about and experienced the effects of the alleged police slowdown.
A recent New York Times report described how policing has dwindled in some of Baltimore’s most dangerous neighborhoods since Gray’s death, and murders have risen to levels higher than what the city has seen in decades. At least 55 people have been killed since May 1 when criminal charges were brought against the six officers. Police union officials said officers are reluctant to fully commit to their jobs because of the risk that they could be prosecuted for their actions.
“We’re hearing a lot of officers saying, we’re not going to provide services because we don’t think you all want us here,” said Brown, a professor at Morgan State University. “So it’s a very punitive approach. Just because we want quality policing, you’re going to withdraw or slowdown policing overall and I just think that’s very petty and unbecoming of a professional workforce.”
Others in attendance at the community meeting echoed Brown’s sentiment about wanting quality policing, not an absence of policing. Brown said he is hopeful that the federal government’s intervention can help turn things around and reestablish a positive relationship between officers and the people they serve.
“I think that’s why so many people have come out here today because there are stories all around the room where people have experiences and it’s such a toxic relationship right now between the police and this community,” he said.
‘They need to go where Freddie Gray was killed’
Travis Robertson, a law student who lives in the Franklin Square neighborhood of Baltimore, said he has been stopped by police officers and “disrespected” numerous times.
“I was stopped by five white police officers in an unmarked car about five years ago who asked me ‘do you have a gun?’” he told ThinkProgress. The officers proceeded to pat him down, including inside his pants, and told him “you say one more word and we’re going to find something on you that’s going to be the charge.”
Robertson said he filed a complaint, but because the department so far has onlyinvestigated itself, the complaint went nowhere. But now that the DOJ has taken on the Baltimore Police Department, he said it’s more important that community members raise their concerns and that the attorneys “do some footwork” to go speak with those affected across the city.
“They need to go where Freddie Gray was killed because everybody ain’t coming down here,” he said. “They need to walk up and down the street and interview people. That’s where you’re really going to get the cases because for every person that testifies here, there’s probably 10 or 20 or more that have been bothered by Baltimore City Police Department and they just haven’t said anything. Especially young black men who have got priors.”
When asked if he knows people who have been threatened by police, Robertson quickly nodded.
“Probably every black male, for real,” he said. “In some sort, every black male.”