ABOVE PHOTO: Hundreds of demonstrators filled NYC’s Union Square in support of Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore in 2015. (a katz / Shutterstock.com)
By Juliet Linderman
BALTIMORE — When Freddie Gray died April 19, 2015, and riots erupted, Baltimore and its residents were forced to confront issues that had plagued them for decades, community leader Ericka Alston said.
“I think for Baltimore as a community, that day really changed our lives forever,” said Alston, who founded Kids Safe Zone in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood just blocks from where Gray was arrested.
Gray’s death – a week after he was injured in a police transport van – became a focal point in the national debate over police treatment of African-Americans. When the smoke cleared, Baltimore looked much the same: Debris from rioting was hauled off, but blocks of dilapidated homes still stood vacant. Violence continued. And the city still has a pervasive problem of economic disparity, a lack of job opportunities for young black men, and a dearth of resources for disenfranchised children.
But change has been cropping up. The police commissioner was fired, and the department is rolling out body cameras. Community activism, advocacy and grassroots organizing are more visible throughout Baltimore. Criminal cases against the officers charged in Gray’s death are progressing.
Here’s a look at what has changed – and what hasn’t – in the year since Gray’s death.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired police Commissioner Anthony Batts in July and replaced him with his deputy, Kevin Davis. But two months later, after criticism about her performance during the unrest – she placed the city under a 10 p.m. curfew – Rawlings-Blake announced she wouldn’t seek re-election.
Political hopefuls from Baltimore and beyond flooded the zone: More than 29 signed up to run. Police reform is center stage in the campaign, with candidates invoking Gray’s name to tout policy change.
Among them: DeRay Mckesson, who gained national attention for his role in the Black Lives Matter movement, wants to establish a program of community first-responders to de-escalate situations between residents and police.
But the two front-runners of the race are familiar names: Catherine Pugh is a state senator and former member of Baltimore City Council. She spent one year in the Maryland General Assembly before she was elected to the Senate. And Sheila Dixon is a former mayor who resigned after she was convicted of stealing gift cards meant for underprivileged children.
Six officers are charged in Gray’s death. None of the cases has been resolved.
William Porter was tried first. The case ended in mistrial when the jury couldn’t unanimously agree on any of the charges: manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
That delayed the remaining trials. Lawyers squabbled over whether Porter could be forced to testify against the others while awaiting retrial. Ultimately Maryland’s highest court ruled that he could. The trials resume next month.
In September, Gray’s family and the city reached a settlement awarding his relatives $6.4 million settlement.
LAWS AND PRACTICES
The Police Department is preparing to roll out a body-camera program to outfit every patrol officer with a device in May. The program, however, was in the works before Gray died.
Other changes came about after his death. Recruits undergo mandatory community-engagement training, and the department is deploying full-time patrol officers to walk the most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
This month, the Maryland legislature passed a police accountability bill, the product of months of work by a panel convened after Gray’s death. The bill changes policies on how police are hired, trained and disciplined, and places a greater emphasis on recruiting from minority communities. Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, says the governor is reviewing the bill.
On the federal level, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the Police Department for allegations of excessive force and unlawful stops. Findings will probably be published this year.
The summer after Gray’s death saw the highest rate of bloodshed since Baltimore police began keeping track of homicides in 1972. In July alone, 45 people were killed. By year’s end, the city recorded 344 homicides and more than 600 nonfatal shootings. Some attributed the spike to officers abandoning their posts in the wake of charges in the Gray case.
In July, Commissioner Davis announced the formation of the War Room, a collaborative effort among the Police Department and more than a dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, to identify repeat offenders and “top trigger pullers.”
Now, about four months into 2016, Davis points out that gun arrests are up 52 percent from last year.
Since Gray’s death, several community groups have emerged, particularly in West Baltimore. The Kids Safe Zone was founded in an old laundromat as a place for children with nowhere else to go to spend the day. One year later, the center has expanded and has new program space.
Additionally, the 300 Men March, an organization dedicated to empowering young men in Baltimore, is opening a community space on the city’s East Side. The group marched to Washington, D.C., in August.
And Safe Streets, which works to reduce violence by connecting with both victims and perpetrators in neighborhoods, opened an outpost in West Baltimore, Gray’s neighborhood. Safe Streets aims to moderate conflicts on the streets before they turn deadly.
Alston, of Kids Safe Zone, said the unrest galvanized organizations to do more for their communities instead of waiting for the city to help. “What the uprising did? I wouldn’t be in a position to offer the services that I do had that not happened,” she said.
THE ROOT ISSUES
The systemic issues that helped turn Freddie Gray into a symbol for the plight of poor, young black men in Baltimore, and nationwide, are largely the same a year later.
In the wake of Gray’s death, the city’s 17,000 vacant homes and decrepit public housing complexes gained attention. Most of those homes are still vacant. Gov. Hogan recently announced a $94 million plan to raze blocks of blighted vacant homes. Many residents, tired of watching their communities deteriorate, praised the move.
The school system, which spent more than 25 years under a federal consent decree, is woefully underfunded, and in February, a police officer was caught on camera slapping and kicking a student. That raised questions about the safety of Baltimore schools and whether officers there are adequately screened.
Late last year, Hogan killed plans for the Red Line, a light rail that would have connected West Baltimore to the rest of the city. He diverted the budget of about $3 billion to road and bridge projects outside Baltimore. The NAACP sued, calling the decision a civil rights violation.
University of Maryland sociology professor Rashawn Ray says that for the most marginalized people Freddie Gray represents, “unfortunately, nothing has changed. Our schools are still underfunded. Our neighborhoods are still dilapidated, and we still do not have jobs.”