Baltimore police walk near a mural depicting Freddie Gray after prosecutors dropped remaining charges against the three Baltimore police officers who were still awaiting trial. Photo / AP
The ending that many people here had both expected and dreaded came Wednesday, when prosecutors announced in court that they had given up their effort to hold city police accountable for Freddie Gray’s death.
But in the 15 months between when six officers were charged and when all six knew they would go free, a very different series of endings unfolded in another downtown courthouse: Five convictions of five men who helped incite the riots that crippled Baltimore in the hours and days after Gray’s casket was lowered into the earth.
All are black, none older than 25, and each is likely to serve years in federal prison.
While no one defends the rioters’ destructive acts, the juxtaposition of their cases with those of the officers has only fueled a pervasive sense of inequity in Baltimore’s most beleaguered neighborhoods.
For several chaotic weeks in the spring of 2015, this city was the face of a debate about law enforcement’s treatment of African Americans. While the nation long ago moved on to fatal police shootings of black men in other cities, Baltimore cannot.”Poor young black men, once again, get a different quality of justice than others,” said James Wyda, the federal public defender for Maryland, who noted that “the justice system depends on a perception of fairness. If communities lose faith, then the whole system is undermined.”
The fallout has been inescapable: A police commissioner fired and the mayor declining to run for reelection; a Justice Department review of practices that may have led to the 25-year-old’s fatal injury in the back of a police van; a police department already trying to fix the flawed procedures exposed by Gray’s death; a pair of City Council candidates who are expected to win in November and could push for further reform; and a Maryland bill that adds new levels of civilian oversight to police training and disciplinary boards.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D), the front-runner in the Baltimore mayoral election, talks with residents at Zion Towers on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore in April. Photo / The Washington Post
“There’s never been more conversation about the underlying issues of poverty and race,” said Ray Kelly, president of the No Boundaries Coalition, a consortium representing the struggling West Baltimore communities at the epicenter of the riots. “The death of Freddie Gray gave us
more exposure than we ever had for what we have been fighting for.”
Kelly made that pronouncement after walking out of a precinct coordination meeting at police headquarters that he probably wouldn’t have been invited to before last year’s uprising.
But what remains far from certain is whether all of these fresh efforts will lead to real, meaningful change in places that city leaders have tried and failed to reinvent before.
Baltimore’s problems go well beyond its poorest residents’ battered relationship with police. Many of its children need better schools and places to play, their parents need jobs and decent housing, and young people need a reason to quit killing each other at near-record rates.
Today, more than 15 months after Gray’s death, Kelly has legitimate reasons to believe both that change will happen and that it won’t.
Last weekend, his group organized a clean up along a block of rowhouses they had tired of seeing used as a ready-made backdrop of blight for TV news
reports from the corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues, where the worst rioting occurred. But one tidied stretch does nothing to transform blocks of empty, boarded-up homes, plastered with campaign posters and plaques – “We Must Stop Killing Each Other” – from past protests.
At that intersection, the burned and looted CVS has reopened and the check-cashing stores are again ticking along, but several businesses, including Murray’s Market and Footlocker, never recovered.
And then there’s the citywide blight-removal program, which includes a massive $700 million state-funded effort to demolish hundreds of Baltimore’s 17,000 vacant rowhouses.
Experience tells Kelly that the poor residents being relocated are not the target market for the more expensive houses sure to follow. And he has little faith in the green initiative that officials tout as a benefit of the demolishment program. Most of the blocks they take down are followed by a rectangle of new grass. Kelly said those are just weed plots waiting to happen.
To illustrate, he pointed out a neat pocket park that was recently unveiled on Stricker Street in West Baltimore by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Where a block of rowhouses was recently obliterated, two new benches face each other inside a circle of freshly planted locust saplings.
“The governor wants to convince us that the green space is going to look like this,” Kelly said, “when we can look over here on the other side of the block and see that it’s going to look like this.”
He gestured toward a small park created last year that has already become a tangle of weeds, scrubby shrubs and windblown plastic bags. Only a garishly painted wooden sunflower shows that anyone ever had ambitions of making it more than an abandoned patch in a neglected neighborhood.
Sgt. Alicia White’s defense attorney Ivan Bates gestures toward her at a news conference after all remaining charges in the case were dropped. Photo / The Washington Post
‘They killed somebody’
On June 23, Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, walked out of a downtown Baltimore courthouse as a free man after a judge determined that he was not guilty of murder in Gray’s death.
The next day, Donta Betts, 20, walked into a courthouse seven blocks away and received a sentence of 15 years after admitting to a litany of violent deeds, which included setting fire to a pile of eight propane tanks – essentially igniting a bomb in front of a police line. Another rioter had already been sentenced to four years for setting the CVS aflame.
“I figured I did all this because that was my period of time to go wild on the police,” Betts had told officers, according to court documents.
Two weeks later, Gregory Lee Butler, 22, pleaded guilty to federal charges for twice stabbing a fire hose that was being used to fight the flames engulfing the CVS.
Three weeks after that, the trio of officers still to stand trial in Gray’s death learned that they never would.
And soon, the three remaining convicted rioters, including Butler, will be sentenced for their crimes.
Last year’s chaos left 144 vehicles and 15 buildings burned, scarring West Baltimore and costing the city millions of dollars – but no one died, as Gray did while in police custody.
“My thing is, they killed somebody,” said William Tyler, a former drug dealer turned community leader in Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. “That’s a human.”
Rod Rosenstein, the Maryland U.S. attorney, described any comparison between the cases as “ridiculous.”
“We thought it was important to pursue people who were involved in maliciously destroying the city,” he said. Investigators released video of one of the rioters kicking a shopkeeper in the face during the looting.
The unrest’s wider repercussions remain a point of contention. As destructive as the riots were, some say the current dialogue about the city’s racial and economic divisions would have never happened otherwise. But Rosenstein noted that the surge of killings in the months since the rioting signaled a lawlessness not seen in Baltimore since the drug epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“I think in terms of public safety, it’s impossible to argue that the situation is better today than it was a year ago,” Rosenstein said. “There were 344 people murdered last year. It was unprecedented, and it followed a decade of declines. It set the city back a decade of progress.”
As of Friday, 171 people have been killed this year, just slightly down from the 186 at this time in 2015.
But the man tasked with curbing those homicides, new Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, has already garnered broad support, both from community leaders and his own officers.
“I think he’s doing a good job,” said Tessa Hill-Aston, head of the Baltimore NAACP. “He’s really trying to change rules and regulations.”
Among them: Cameras have been installed in the back of police vans, officers must summon medical help when prisoners request it and procedures have been instituted to ensure officers can’t miss new directives. (Police involved in Gray’s arrest argued that they never saw rules requiring prisoners to be belted into transport vans. Gray, who wasn’t secured by a seat belt, died of a severe spinal injury suffered in the van.)
His death even sped up the implementation of body cameras.
Maryland lawmakers also passed legislation that, among other things, created new oversight of police.
Before the riots, more than a dozen bills with similar provisions and reform mandates failed last year, according to state Del. Curtis Anderson, chairman of the Baltimore City delegation. He noted that seven civilians now sit on a 21-member state training board that sets hiring and work standards for police officers in every Maryland jurisdiction.
Soon, he said, officers will be mandated go undergo periodic psychological tests.
In addition, internal disciplinary hearings of police accused of misconduct will be open to the public throughout the state.
Anderson, first elected in 1982, credited Baltimore police with instituting many changes ahead of the new laws and before the Justice Department issues its review, anticipated soon.
The Gray case, he said, “has caused massive changes in Baltimore, and in the Baltimore City police department. It’s no longer, ‘Maybe we should do this, or let’s have a pilot program about that.’ These changes are real, and they’re happening on a fairly quick basis.”
But when, if ever, will residents such as William Tyler see the effects of those changes?
“The effort is there,” said Hill-Aston. “But everybody is still in pain.”
A massive fire smoldered through the night in East Baltimore after the rioting that began in West Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s funeral. Photo / The Washington Post
Thomas Grant could find just one thing that had improved in the months since Gray’s death: The CVS’s lightbulbs.
“It’s a little bit brighter maybe,” said Grant, a 52-year-old auto mechanic, in the store to fill a prescription Thursday morning. “Otherwise, nothing’s changed in Baltimore.”
That sense of resignation may explain why, despite those charged in Gray’s death escaping conviction, no windows were smashed and no cars were set aflame, as so many people in West Baltimore had predicted.
Brandi Murphy is, at her core, an optimist, but these past 15 months have tested her, and not just because of the tumult in her neighborhood.
She’s quit watching the morning news before heading to Sandtown’s Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center, where she works as the director. Murphy, 36, just can’t bear to continue hearing about young black men dying at the hands of police. She suspects that those killings influenced her community’s muted response to the discouraging developments in Gray’s case.
“If it was singular, if it was just one city, I think people here would still have momentum,” she said. “When it’s literally across the country, what can we do in one city?”
On some days, though, she can see her one city making progress.
Under Davis, she said, officers have shown up in the neighborhood every month to spend time with the children. They’ve played basketball and painted together. They’ve shared cookies and hot chocolate.
“I honestly feel like the police have made a real effort to get in contact with the kids and build a real relationship,” she said.
For months, she wouldn’t allow the teenage boys in her program to play outside, fearful of what they would look like to passing officers. Lately, she’s begun to rethink that rule.
Then, last month, on the first day of the center’s summer camp, she arranged a picnic in an empty field across the street from their building.
Toward the end of lunch, as the kids finished their chicken-salad sandwiches and pita chips, gunfire exploded a few blocks away.
She quickly lined the children up and rushed them back to the center, and then locked the door behind her.
And as two men were driven to the hospital where one of them would die, Murphy gave another lesson to her kids about what do when they heard gunshots: Drop to the ground, cover your head, crawl for cover.