Baltimore had 343 homicides in 2017, a number which set a new record for the most murders per capita in the city’s history. Today NPR published an interesting interview with a Baltimore pastor named Rev. Kinji Scott who says the problem is that police in the city have pulled back in the wake of the Freddie Gray case. Interviewer Lauren Prayer asks Rev. Scott, “After the death of Freddie Gray, yourself, families of victims, didn’t you want police to back off?” Scott replied:
No. That represented our progressives, our activists, our liberal journalists, our politicians, but it did not represent the overall community. Because we know for a fact that around the time Freddie Gray was killed, we start to see homicides increase. We had five homicides in that neighborhood while we were protesting.
What I wanted to see happen was that people would be able to trust the relationship with our police department so that they would feel more comfortable. We’d have conversations with the police about crime in their neighborhood because they would feel safer. So we wanted the police there. We wanted them engaged in the community. We didn’t want them beating the hell out of us, we didn’t want that.
It’s interesting that Scott blames progressives and liberal journalists for demanding police back off but says that’s not what most people in the community really wanted. You sometimes hear that argument from conservatives but it never seems to carry much weight when they say it. Now that Scott is saying it will anyone listen?
The topic of Black Lives Matter and the shooting of Michael Brown also comes up in the interview. Asked about specific changes the group has brought since the killing in Ferguson, Scott suggests the outcome has been more distance between police and black communities, not less:
The primary thrust nationwide is what President Obama wanted to do: focus on building relationships with police departments and major cities where there had been a history of conflict. That hasn’t happened. We don’t see that. I don’t know a city — Baltimore for certain — we’ve not seen any changes in those relationships. What we have seen is that the police has distanced themselves, and the community has distanced themselves even further. So the divide has really intensified, it hasn’t decreased.
And of course we want to delineate the whole culture of bad policing that exists — nobody denies that — but as a result of this, we don’t see the level of policing we need in our community to keep the crime down in our cities that we are seeing bleed to death.
There are lots of interesting follow-up questions a reporter could have asked at this point, none of which are asked. The first one that comes to mind is simple: Was Michael Brown murdered by a rogue police officer? The answer to that question would tell us a lot about Rev. Scott and potentially about why policing is what it is in cities like Baltimore.
The correct answer to that question, as the Obama DOJ concluded, is no. The officer was trying to deal with crime in a neighborhood a lot like Baltimore and wound up in a fight for his gun. He shot and killed Brown after Brown turned and ran toward him. But as we all know, “the community” sided with Brown. For a while, it seemed everyone believed he was murdered by a racist cop while trying to surrender. To this day, many Black Lives Matter supporters view him as a victim of racial injustice. A plaque was installed at the scene of his death. Meanwhile, the officer who shot him went into hiding and faced death threats.
Of course, there are legitimate cases of police abuse of power. The DOJ also found evidence of that in Ferguson. And there have been legitimate cases of murder of black men by dirty cops, as we saw recently with Officer Slager. There is genuine cause for mistrust and suspicion. But anyone wondering why police have pulled back in places like St. Louis and Baltimore need only look at what happened in Ferguson. Why would police risk their lives and their careers for neighborhoods willing to believe the absolute worst about them the moment something goes wrong? And that risk is real. Just last month, Baltimore Detective Sean Suiter was murdered while trying to get leads on a triple homicide. From the Washington Post:
On Wednesday, honor guards and average citizens, police officers from across Maryland and beyond, gathered to mourn Detective Sean Suiter, who met a violent death on one of the most violent streets he had worked in his 18 years on the force…
The 43-year-old District native and married father of five served in the U.S. Army, then the police. As Gov. Larry Hogan characterized it, he “dedicated his life to working in unsafe places in unsafe times.”
The last of those places was on a narrow street in West Baltimore’s Harlem Park neighborhood, where Suiter went Nov. 15 to search for new leads in a triple killing from December 2016 on that very block. Authorities said he confronted a suspicious man who, in a brief fight, grabbed Suiter’s gun and shot him in the head in a vacant lot.
What if the confrontation had gone the other way, as it did in Ferguson, and Suiter had shot and killed the man who tried to take his gun? Would he have been the focus of protests and complaints? Would the incident have erased his 18 years of solid service to the community?
It would have been telling to see how Rev. Scott answered the question about Ferguson because the facts in the Brown case are pretty clear at this point. It’s easy to side with an officer who was murdered with his own gun. Everyone can agree that’s a tragedy. But can you side with an officer who fought a suspect for his gun and wound up killing the person who tried to take it? That’s less clear cut.
Rev. Scott is on to something when he says the current divide is what progressives and liberal journalists wanted but not what most residents wanted. If he’s right, it’s going to take those other residents standing up and being willing to side with the police (at least until all the facts are in) to convince officers it’s worth risking their lives and careers for those violent neighborhoods.