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BALTIMORE (AP) — A year after the death of Freddie Gray, a small part of his legacy can be seen at a southwest Baltimore recreation center, where the pounding of basketballs and squeak of sneakers echo off the walls as young black men in shorts and sweats face off.

Ken Hurst, a white policeman, watches from the side, a bum knee the only thing that keeps him from playing. He visits the game each week, not to make arrests but to make friends. “I need them to realize I’m not out here to lock everyone up,” he says. “I’m here to rebuild trust.”

Seldom in the city’s history has that trust been so tenuous: Gray, a 25-year-old black man from West Baltimore, died after his neck was broken April 12 in the back of a police van. Protests erupted and long-simmering tensions between the police and residents exploded into the worst riots and looting in more than four decades. The U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into allegations of unlawful arrests and excessive force.

In Baltimore and beyond, Gray’s name became a rallying cry, representative of black men’s mistreatment by police officers, and of the Baltimore department’s own failings.

Police commissioner Anthony Batts was fired. His deputy — and replacement — Kevin Davis — promised to repair a relationship with the community that was so strained some say it’s safer to run from police than take a chance on interacting with them. While some in the community remain skeptical, other say there has been progress.

Davis has implemented a mandatory, 40-hour community patrol class that teaches officers in training — and eventually, all officers — how to engage residents. Davis said he has also begun honoring officers each week for demonstrating “guardianship” — for forging strong bonds with residents, rather than making arrests.

“That’s how far we’ve come this year,” he says. “Would that have happened before Freddie Gray? Probably not.

“We can no longer just go occupy a geography, a poor minority neighborhood, and stop 300 people in the hopes of catching 10 bad guys,” Davis said. “We’re also looking at who we’re hiring … Are we hiring people with a service mind set, or people who watch too many cops and robbers television shows?”

Another initiative, the one that brought Hurst to the rec center, aims to get more officers out of their cars and walking the streets of Baltimore’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods as full-time patrol officers.

Howard Hood is a 22-year-old black man who was born and raised in the neighborhood Hurst patrols, and he shows up to the rec center every Tuesday night.

“Not all cops want to see us dead or in jail. We need more officers to come out and feel comfortable being around us,” he says.

An hour earlier, Hurst, blue-eyed with tanned skin and an easy smile, was walking along a commercial strip in the Irvington neighborhood, dotted with corner stores, liquor stores, cheap restaurants and a massive thrift shop. Spotting a group of young men loitering near a bus shelter, he gently but firmly told them to move along.

As he strolled down the block, a car stopped in the middle of the road and a young man popped his head out of the passenger window.

“Whassup Hurst?” he shouts, his smiling lips parted to reveal teeth plated with gold veneers.

As part of his routine, Hurst walks to a cellphone store to check in on the manager. On the way, 45-year-old Keith Hopkins, who sat in a wheelchair, a hand-rolled cigarette between his fingers, stopped the officer to chat.

“Hurst don’t need a gun or a badge around here,” he says. “He’s one of the good ones.”

In 2015, the city experienced the most violent year in its history, and the Southwestern District, Hurst’s post, saw 51 killings — the most of any precinct except the Western District, where Gray was arrested.

“Police officers, a lot of them think that every guy standing on the corner is dealing drugs, which isn’t true,” Hurst said. “And the community, a lot of them out here think every police officer coming up to them is going to make them sit on the ground and cuss at them and treat them badly.”

Community mistrust of police in Baltimore dates back decades. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley, mayor from 1999-2006, instituted a “zero tolerance” crime-fighting strategy that advocated “stop and frisk” practices and cracking down on lower-level crimes such as public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. In 2005, more than 100,000 people were arrested — roughly one sixth of the city’s population— and a Baltimore grand jury found excessive arrests in poor black neighborhoods.

The city paid $870,000 to settle a lawsuit by people who said they were illegally arrested, and O’Malley’s successors have moved away from zero-tolerance policing. The police commissioner says those days are over, but the hangover lingers.

Dorothy Cunningham, 58, the president of the Irvington Community Association, was instrumental in getting Hurst assigned to her district. Hurst, an eight-year veteran, is beloved in the neighborhood, and has already helped residents feel safer, she says.

“Maybe the police learned something from the unrest in the spring,” Cunningham says.

Other officers struggle to blend into the communities they patrol, where residents are still fearful of police and critical of the department.

Across town, Jordan Distance, a black officer, walks a commercial strip surrounded by blocks dotted with abandoned buildings and vacant homes. The day before, five people were shot, one fatally, on his beat. The police had yet to identify a suspect.

“The shooting last night, there’s so many vacants and alleys and nobody’s going to tell me what he looks like,” he says.

“There’s that disconnect between us and the people. I don’t know if it’s because they’re scared or what.”

For Hurst, policing is only one aspect of the job. He hands out flyers advertising jobs and is helping transform a vacant property into a community center, complete with a computer lab, a police substation and workshop space.

“There’s a guy who said, I’ll come and teach them carpentry. Another guy in the neighborhood said he’d come in and help them with their homework,” Hurst says.

“We’ll put in a garden and when the vegetables are ripe we’ll pick them and pass them out. We’re trying,” he says, “we’re trying our best.”

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4 thoughts on “Community Policing Seen As Solution In Baltimore

  1. Our cities should never have abandoned the “cop on the beat.” Seeing police cruise around in their patrol cars reminds me of an occupying army instead of Officer Friendly. I visited Baltimore frequently during the past 3 years, and really loved my trips. Not just to the tourist areas, but The Block and West Baltimore, to the public pool near Edgar Alan Poe’s birthplace. I lived in SE Washington DC on Mellon Street (MLK next to Malcolm X by Popeyes) and at the 801 men’s shelter on MLK for two years, then moved to NE DC for two years on 18th and Benning Rd by Hechinger Mall.

    Some gun violence, much less than in the late 80s and 90s when crack was king and DC was the murder capital of the US, , though it’s been getting a little worse lately, from what my friends tell me…

    I’ve been in Las Vegas for the past year, mainly North Vegas and Historic Westside, where one of my good friends was shot to death a few months ago near his place on Frederick and D. Word on the street is that the Crips and Bloods from LA are fighting local Vegas gangs for control of the drugs….shootings almost every day, though many are domestic, some are drug-related.

    We should legalize most drugs, including heroin, to take away the gangs’ money and motive for violence, though I’m afraid Big Pharma will jack up prices as they’ve been doing for decades with prescription drugs. Not sure who is greedier, Big Pharma or the street gangs….

  2. specialt757 on said:

    This may be one of the answers to help solving some of the violence in our community. We’ve gone away from police officers getting to know the neighbors they patrol. At one time you saw an officer and you knew him by name. I’m sure budget cuts contributed to the demise of this fundamental need. Cops no longer know the people so it’s easy for them to shoot them instead of having a dialect with them. I hope this is just the beginning of the changes and should be implemented in cities across our nation. Anyone got any more viable solutions should contact your civic leagues and community leaders and have open discussions with the city council and police departments in their cities. Trust me, I know first-hand that these people want to do everything possible to ensure the safety of the public.

    • specialt757 on said:

      @Larry
      Yes sounds like that’s how it was designed to be, but now that we’ve passed that point, any other ideas of how to reduce crime. On another note, mentoring may just be your gift to others, ever thought about it?

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