Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Mastodon Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube
Keep Them Honest Support fearless, independent journalism that gets results.
Donate Now
Oakley Avenue in the Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore, where Garfield Leon Jr. was killed on Oct. 1, 2018. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum for The New York Times)

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Since Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, violent crime has spiked to levels unseen for a quarter century. How order collapsed in an American city.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

This article was co-published with The New York Times Magazine.

On April 27, 2015, Shantay Guy was driving her 13-year-old son home across Baltimore from a doctor’s appointment when something — a rock, a brick, she wasn’t sure what — hit her car. Her phone was turned off, so she had not realized that protests and violence had broken out in the city that afternoon, following the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man who drew national attention eight days earlier when he died after suffering injuries in police custody.

As she saw what was happening — fires being set, young people and police officers converging on the nearby vortex of the disorder — she pushed her son, Brandon, down in his seat and sped home. “Mom, are we home yet?” Brandon asked when they pulled up at their house just inside the city line, where they lived with Guy’s husband, her grown daughter and her husband’s late-teenage son, brother and sister-in-law.

“Yeah,” she told him.

“You’re still holding my head down,” he said.

Guy grew up in an impoverished, highly segregated part of West Baltimore near what was now the focal point of the street clashes, but she had long since climbed into a different stratum of the city’s society; she was working as an information-technology project manager for T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore-based mutual-fund giant. Seeing her old neighborhood erupt changed her life. After long discussions with her husband, who manages the office of a local trucking company, she quit her job and went to work for a community mediation organization. “It just felt like it was the work I was supposed to be doing,” she said.

In Baltimore, you can tell a lot about the politics of the person you’re talking with by the word he or she uses to describe the events of April 27, 2015. Some people, and most media outlets, call them the “riots”; some the “unrest.” Guy was among those who always referred to them as the “uprising,” a word that connoted something justifiable and positive: the first step, however tumultuous, toward a freer and fairer city. Policing in Baltimore, Guy and many other residents believed, was broken, with officers serving as an occupying army in enemy territory — harassing African-American residents without cause, breeding distrust and hostility.

In 2016, the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division concurred, releasing a report accusing the city’s Police Department of racial discrimination and excessive force. The city agreed to a “consent decree” with the federal government, a set of policing reforms that would be enforced by a federal judge. When an independent monitoring team was selected to oversee the decree, Guy was hired as its community liaison. This was where she wanted to be: at the forefront of the effort to make her city a better place.

But in the years that followed, Baltimore, by most standards, became a worse place. In 2017, it recorded 342 murders — its highest per-capita rate ever, more than double Chicago’s, far higher than any other city of 500,000 or more residents and, astonishingly, a larger absolute number of killings than in New York, a city 14 times as populous. Other elected officials, from the governor to the mayor to the state’s attorney, struggled to respond to the rise in disorder, leaving residents with the unsettling feeling that there was no one in charge. With every passing year, it was getting harder to see what gains, exactly, were delivered by the uprising.

One night last October, after Guy and her husband, Da’mon, had gone to bed, Da’mon’s brother banged on the bedroom door. “Yo, yo, get up!” he shouted.

It was around 11:30 p.m. Da’mon’s 21-year-old son, Da’mon Jr., whom Shantay had helped raise, would ordinarily have been home by then, after his bus ride across town from his evening shift working as a supply coordinator at Johns Hopkins Hospital. But he was nowhere to be seen. Da’mon Sr. rushed to the door and asked what was going on.

“Dame’s been shot,” his brother said.

Four months later, I met Guy and Da’mon Jr. at a cafe near my office in the center of the city. Da’mon had recently been released after spending 47 days in the hospital, with 20 surgical procedures. His inferior vena cava, which carries blood from the lower body to the heart, no longer functioned; he had to rely on collateral veins instead. He was trying to go back to work, but swelling in his legs and shortness of breath were making it hard.

Da’mon told me he had no idea who was behind the shooting, which he surmised was either an attempted robbery or a gang initiation. It was unnerving, he said, knowing the shooter was still out there somewhere. “I don’t like it when cars slow down to me or people are staring at me too long at stop signs,” he said. “Any one of y’all could be that person. You never know.”

But Guy, somehow, had come through the experience even more committed to the cause she had signed on for. “Our city needs restoration,” she told me.

Shantay Guy and her stepson, Da'mon Jr., who was wounded in a shooting in October 2018. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum for The New York Times)

It takes remarkable fortitude to remain an optimist about Baltimore today. I have lived in the city for 11 of the past 18 years, and for the last few I have struggled to describe its unraveling to friends and colleagues elsewhere. If you live in, say, New York or Boston, you are familiar with a certain story of urban America. Several decades ago, disorder and dysfunction were common across American cities. Then came the great urban rebirth: a wave of reinvestment coupled with a plunge in crime rates that has left many major cities to enjoy a sort of post-fear existence.

Until 2015, Baltimore seemed to be enjoying its own, more modest version of this upswing. Though it is often lumped in with Rust Belt economic casualties like Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit, Baltimore in fact fared better than these postindustrial peers. Because of the Johns Hopkins biomedical empire, the city’s busy port and its proximity to Washington, metro Baltimore enjoyed higher levels of wealth and income — including among its black population — than many former manufacturing hubs.

The city still had its ills — its blight, suburban flight, segregation, drugs, racial inequality, concentrated poverty. But as recently as 2014, Baltimore’s population, which is 63 percent African-American, was increasing, up slightly to 623,000 after decades of decline. Office buildings downtown were being converted to apartments, and a new business-and-residential district was rising east of the Inner Harbor. The city was even attracting those ultimate imprimaturs of urban revival, a couple of food halls.

The subsequent regression has been swift and demoralizing. Redevelopment continues in some parts of town, but nearly four years after Freddie Gray’s death, the surge in crime has once again become the context of daily life in the city, as it was in the early 1990s. I have grown accustomed to scanning the briefs column in The Baltimore Sun in the morning for news of the latest homicides; to taking note of the location of the latest killings as I drive around town for my baseball coaching and volunteering obligations. In 2017, the church I attend started naming the victims of the violence at Sunday services and hanging a purple ribbon for each on a long cord outside. By year’s end, the ribbons crowded for space, like shirts on a tenement clothesline.

The violence and disorder have fed broader setbacks. Gov. Larry Hogan canceled a $2.9 billion rail transit line for West Baltimore, defending the disinvestment in the troubled neighborhood partly by noting that the state had spent $14 million responding to the riots. Target closed its store in West Baltimore, a blow to a part of town short of retail options. The civic compact has so frayed that one acquaintance admitted to me recently that he had stopped waiting at red lights when driving late at night. Why should he, he argued, when he saw young men on dirt bikes flying through intersections while police officers sat in cruisers doing nothing?

Explaining all this to people outside Baltimore is difficult, not only because the experience is alien to those even in cities just up or down the interstate from us (though a handful of cities elsewhere, like Chicago and St. Louis, have experienced their own waves of recent violence, albeit less dramatically than Baltimore). It’s also because the national political discourse lacks a vocabulary for the city’s ills. On right-wing talk radio, one of the few sectors of the media to take much interest in Baltimore’s crime surge, there are old tropes of urban mayhem — Trump’s “American carnage.” Typically lacking from these schadenfreude-laced discussions is any sense of the historical forces and societal abandonment that the city has for decades struggled to overcome.

On the left, in contrast, Baltimore’s recent woes have been largely overlooked, partly because they present a challenge to those who start from the assumption that policing is inherently suspect. The national progressive story of Baltimore during this era of criminal-justice reform has been the story of the police excesses that led to Gray’s death and the uprising, not the surge of violence that has overtaken the city ever since. As a result, Baltimore has been left mostly on its own to contend with what has been happening, which has amounted to nothing less than a failure of order and governance the likes of which few American cities have seen in years.

To understand how things in Baltimore have gotten so bad, you need to first understand how, not so long ago, they got better. Violence was epidemic in Baltimore in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as it was in many other cities, as crack intruded into a drug market long dominated by heroin. In 1993, the city crossed the 350-homicide mark. These were the years that inspired “The Wire.” They also gave rise to Martin O’Malley, a city councilman who was elected mayor on an anti-crime platform in 1999.

O’Malley set about implementing what was then known as the New York model: zero tolerance for open-air drug markets, data-centric “CompStat” meetings to track crime and hold police commanders accountable and more resources for law enforcement paired with tougher discipline for officers who abused their power. By the time O’Malley, a Democrat, was elected governor of Maryland in 2006, crime rates, including murders, had fallen across the board, but at a cost. Arrests had jumped to 101,000 in 2005 from 81,000 in 1999 — leaving a city full of young men with criminal records and months and years away from jobs and families.

This perturbed a police detective named Tony Barksdale. At the time a colonel in his mid-30s, Barksdale, a bald, bearish man with a lugubrious manner, grew up in a rough section of West Baltimore. “I saw my first guy get shot at a football tryout at Franklin Square,” near his home, he told me when I met him for lunch last spring in the city’s Canton neighborhood. His own block was relatively safe, however, because a police officer lived on it. Barksdale was drifting through Coppin State College, “blowing Pell grants,” when he saw a bunch of young black cops on the street one day. The sight inspired him to sign up himself.

Early in 2007, he proposed a more targeted approach to policing to Sheila Dixon, the City Council president who finished O’Malley’s term as mayor after he was elected governor. Dixon, like Barksdale a product of the city’s black working class, agreed with Barksdale’s vision for reducing the murders without mass arrests. “She said, ‘How long will it take you?’” Barksdale recalls. “I said, ‘One day.’”

Fred Bealefeld, Dixon’s new police commissioner, promoted Barksdale to deputy of operations — he was the youngest deputy commissioner in the city’s history — and Barksdale got to work. He developed plainclothes units with a more surgical approach to policing, which targeted the most violent corners and worked with homicide detectives to arrest the people whose names surfaced in connection with killings. He and Bealefeld met weekly with top-ranking staff members in the mayor’s office and sat down with top city officials every couple of weeks in CitiStat meetings — the municipal equivalent of CompStat — where Bealefeld was quizzed on overtime costs, recruiting and other markers of departmental health. Every couple of weeks, representatives of the police, the state’s attorney’s office and others met to review data on firearms prosecutions.

Arrests fell by a third from 2006 to 2011 — and homicides plummeted as well, to 197 in 2011, the city’s first time under 200 in almost four decades. A 2018 study by Johns Hopkins found that the new approach to policing was the city’s most effective in recent years. “Baltimore had it going on,” Barksdale told me.

Tony Barksdale, former interim commissioner of the Baltimore police. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum for The New York Times)

But while Dixon had carried on O’Malley’s government-accountability practices, she proved less than ethical in her own affairs. A few years into Barksdale’s efforts, she was charged by the state prosecutor with theft and fraud. The prosecutor had scrutinized contracts and jobs her friends and relatives had received from the city — investigations that led to the discovery that she had personally used hundreds of dollars in gift cards solicited from developers and meant for poor children.

Dixon was convicted and resigned, and was replaced by the City Council’s president, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, an Oberlin- and University of Maryland School of Law-educated daughter of a powerful state legislator. Rawlings-Blake, a more reserved leader than Dixon, wanted Bealefeld to communicate with the public more often than he was inclined to but also less candidly; a white cop from a family full of them, Bealefeld was known for his blunt talk about “punks” and “knuckleheads.” In 2012, he retired, as did two of his closest City Hall allies, and Barksdale became interim commissioner.

Barksdale interviewed for the permanent job, but Rawlings-Blake instead hired Anthony Batts, the former police chief in Oakland, California. Batts had resigned in Oakland amid tensions with the mayor and federal court monitors, but he had a doctorate and spoke fluently about the need for community relations. Batts’ profile suited a city that wanted to believe that its most violent days were behind it. Barksdale didn’t find out he had been passed over until he got a call from Justin Fenton, The Sun’s lead police reporter.

When the Black Lives Matter movement transformed the debate about policing in 2014, Batts embraced an image as a reformer. He attended street festivals in full uniform. He reined in Barksdale’s plainclothes teams after a series in The Sun reported how much the city was spending to resolve lawsuits over rough arrests — more than $5 million since 2011. On Bealefeld and Barksdale’s watch, there had also been a rise in shootings by police officers, which roughly doubled between 2006 and 2007 before dropping to earlier levels — a fact Barksdale remains unapologetic about. “To hit the brakes on crime, there will be police-involved shootings,” he recalls telling Dixon and Bealefeld. “I know their mind-set. They’ll respect you if you’re willing to die just like them. And there are people who just don’t get that.”

It was a controversial approach and one that Batts did not subscribe to. He replaced much of the command staff, and other people left on their own. Among them was Barksdale, who retired at age 42. “I like a commissioner who says, ‘Look, we have people in the community we have to arrest,’” Barksdale told me. “Not cops out here dancing in full uniform.”

Political developments, meanwhile, had eroded foundations of the department’s recent successes, which depended heavily on coordination with City Hall and state and federal prosecutors, as well as with Maryland’s parole-and-probation office and other state agencies that might not have been as attentive to the city if the governor had not been a former Baltimore mayor. But in 2014, Maryland elected Larry Hogan, a Republican suburban real estate developer, as O’Malley’s successor for governor. Hogan put less pressure on state offices to work closely with the city’s police. And the new state’s attorney, after an upset victory in a low-turnout Democratic primary, was Marilyn Mosby, a 34-year-old former assistant prosecutor who had run with the apparent goal of shaking up the city’s law-enforcement bureaucracy. She jettisoned not only top deputies but also many prosecutors; more left of their own accord. Over time, senior members of her office became a less-frequent presence at CompStat and other meetings with law-enforcement partners. (Mosby’s office did not respond to requests for official comment.)

In her campaign, Mosby called for diverting more nonviolent drug offenders into treatment. One halfway house used for this purpose was in West Baltimore, and drug dealers had zeroed in on its residents as a clientele, according to a member of Mosby’s staff. On March 17, 2015, Mosby’s office asked a police commander to target a nearby intersection for “enhanced” drug enforcement. A few weeks later, two officers on bike patrol a couple of blocks south of that intersection encountered a man named Freddie Gray.

Protesters confront Baltimore police on April 27, 2015, the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Among the deaths at police officers’ hands that animated the Black Lives Matter movement in its early stages, Gray’s was uniquely ambiguous. He was not shot, as were Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. All that is known for certain is this: When he encountered the police officers, Gray — who had engaged in low-level dealing over the years — ran. When the police gave chase and tackled him, they found a small knife in his pocket and placed him under arrest. Gray was put in the back of a police van shackled and unbuckled, in violation of a new department policy. When the van arrived at the Western District’s headquarters, Gray was unconscious with a nearly severed spinal cord. He died seven days later.

Protesters took to the streets after Gray’s death. Batts, who had canceled a European vacation he was scheduled to take the previous week, appealed to Hogan’s new state police chief for reinforcements, but he received an offer of only about 120 officers, far fewer than he hoped for. The demonstrations proceeded mostly peacefully for a week until Saturday, April 25, when rowdy baseball fans headed to Camden Yards — including out-of-town Red Sox fans — taunted a group of protesters who had marched into downtown. In the mayhem that ensued, some teenagers and young men smashed in police cruisers’ windshields and bar windows and looted a 7-Eleven.

The police held back, making only about a dozen arrests. It appeared as if Batts wanted to set himself apart from the heavy-handed tactics in Ferguson, where anti-riot police officers bristled with military hardware. That night, Batts, who declined to be interviewed on the record for this article, hailed his officers’ limited response to the disorderly crowd amassed downtown. “We’re taking our time to give them the opportunity to leave,” he told reporters.

Bealefeld, Batts’ predecessor, told me: “There were people inside police leadership circles that were being celebrated for their restraint. People were thinking, ‘Aha, we want to be seen in that light.’” But this hands-off response drew resentment within the department, where many were already disgruntled with the commissioner from California. “It would have been over that night if we’d been able to do our jobs,” one veteran officer who attended a command briefing that weekend told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. “They let it fester.”

The approach was notably different two days later, the day of Gray’s funeral. The police were on edge over two separate rumors — a social-media call for a youth “purge,” or rampage, into downtown after school let out, and talk of gangs uniting to attack police officers. The FBI quickly determined that the second threat was baseless, but Batts responded heavily to the first rumor, sending 300 officers to confront students at a big west-side transit hub after school and stand guard outside the adjacent shopping mall. Someone in authority — to this day, officials won’t say who — ordered a shutdown of transit service. Some of the stranded teenagers started throwing rocks and bricks at the police, who lacked proper protective gear and had received little riot-response training. Before long, a CVS pharmacy a mile away was on fire.

In hindsight, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the riot was probably avoidable — if Batts had had more officers at his disposal, if his officers had been better trained, if there hadn’t been the seeming overreaction to Monday’s swirling rumors. But within three hours it was out of his control. Hogan dispatched National Guard troops and established a command center in West Baltimore. That Friday, Mosby — whose policing request may very well have led to Gray’s arrest — held a televised news conference announcing a long list of serious charges against six officers, including “depraved heart murder,” or causing death through indifference. “I have heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace,’” she declared.

Officers look on in front of the Baltimore Police Department's Western District station on April 21, 2015, as protesters rallied after Gray’s death. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Her announcement of charges — based on an investigation her own office conducted, not trusting the department’s — helped stanch further unrest, but it delivered a profound blow to morale among rank-and-file officers, who were already aggrieved over their leadership’s handling of the riot, in which 130 officers were injured. Officers bridled at the ringing, declamatory tone of her announcement. “It was the way she did it — the grandstanding,” the veteran officer told me.

“Cops don’t necessarily stop in their tracks because another cop is charged in a crime,” Kevin Davis, one of Batts’ deputies at the time, told me. “Typically it’s a bad cop, a crook, a drug dealer or a drunk or someone who abuses his wife. But when these cops got charged criminally and the probable cause was not easily understood by the rank and file — that gave them a sense of dread.”

The department’s officers responded swiftly, by doing nothing. In Baltimore it came to be known as “the pullback”: a monthslong retreat from policing, a protest that was at once undeclared and unmistakably deliberate — encouraged, some top officials in the department at the time believe, by the local police union. Many officers responded to calls for service but refused to undertake any “officer-initiated” action. Cruisers rolled by trouble spots without stopping or didn’t roll by at all. Compounding the situation, some of the officers hospitalized in the riot remained out on medical leave. Arrests plunged by more than half from the same month a year before. The head of the police union, Lt. Gene Ryan, called the pullback justifiable: “Officers may be second-guessing themselves,” he told The Sun. “Questioning, if I make this stop or this arrest, will I be prosecuted?”

Ray Kelly, a West Baltimore community activist, had achieved measured success in building relationships with officers along the drug-riddled Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, where his organization had an office. Suddenly, those officers were gone. “We saw a pullback in this community for over a month where it was up to the community to police the community,” Kelly told me. “And quite frankly, we were outgunned.” In the vacuum, crews took new corners and people settled old scores. Not a single person was killed on the day of the rioting. But the following month, May, would conclude with 41 homicides — the most the city had experienced in a month since the 1970s, and more than the city of Boston would have for the entire year.

Late that month, Batts admitted he was having trouble getting officers to do their job. “I talked to them again about character and what character means,” he told me and other reporters following a City Council hearing. He grew so mortified over the pullback that he started wearing suits instead of his uniform. By July’s end, 45 people had been killed during the month, and Rawlings-Blake had replaced Batts with Davis. The department was hemorrhaging officers now, at all ranks.

Amid the upheavals of 2015, Shantay Guy found herself recalling, as a girl on North Avenue in the 1980s, diving under a car during a shooting, getting oil on her favorite shirt. Her work at T. Rowe Price suddenly seemed unacceptably rarefied. “I’m not doing enough,” she thought. “I’m doing a lot to make rich people richer.”

She approached a friend, Erricka Bridgeford, who is director of training at the Baltimore Community Mediation Center, a nonprofit group that helps settle personal and neighborhood conflicts. Bridgeford encouraged Guy to take her training course. Guy started volunteering as a mediator and was soon offered the job of leading the center. She took it, along with a two-thirds salary cut.

Across Baltimore, there was by then a mounting sense that whatever path there was to be found out of the city’s chaos, its residents were going to have to find it themselves — that the authorities were no longer up to the task. The lawlessness that followed the police pullback had persisted, and the city ended 2015 with 342 homicides, a 62 percent increase over the year before, within a dozen deaths of the worst year of the 1990s. Ninety-three percent of the victims were black. The rate at which detectives were able to close homicide cases fell from 50 percent in 2013 to 30 percent, as residents grew even warier of calling in tips or testifying.

In July 2016, Mosby’s office dropped all remaining charges against officers in the Gray case, after trials resulted in three acquittals and one hung jury. It was that August that the Department of Justice released its 163-page report on the Police Department, a result of a yearlong investigation it opened at the request of Rawlings-Blake after Gray’s death. The report concluded that the police had engaged in “a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.” The police’s pedestrian stops were disproportionately focused on African-Americans. They frequently patted down or frisked people “without identifying necessary grounds to believe that the person is armed and dangerous.” Baltimore officers used “overly aggressive tactics that unnecessarily escalate encounters, increase tensions and lead to unnecessary force,” the report stated.

The report affirmed years’ worth of civilian complaints about the department. But it also essentially ignored Barksdale and Bealefeld’s largely successful efforts to move toward a more targeted policing approach. It suggested that mass arrests led inexorably to Gray’s death and the protests, when in fact by 2014, arrests had been halved from a decade earlier. Barksdale was especially livid about the report’s suggestion that the department, which is roughly 40 percent black, was prejudiced because it arrested mostly African-Americans in many parts of town. “Now a cop in a black community is wrong because he confronts black people?” he told me.

He was also confounded by the report’s mockery of the department’s crackdowns on dice games, a frequent target of robberies and shootings. “Dude, you can’t have [expletive] open-air dice games,” he said. Armed robbers “want to stick that up, and if they have a shotgun and buckshot, you’ll have six or seven victims.” The failure of the report’s authors to grasp this, he said, betrayed a fundamental ignorance of local realities. “They have no understanding of what these things mean in Baltimore,” he said.

By that point, Baltimore had elected yet another new mayor: Catherine Pugh, who won the Democratic primary that April — in Baltimore, the only election that matters — after Rawlings-Blake opted not to run for re-election. That December, Pugh came to her first meeting of CitiStat, the municipal accountability body started by O’Malley. The meetings were held on the sixth floor of City Hall, where top city officials sat around a curved table and put questions to whichever agency head had been called to the lectern that day to defend his or her agency’s performance.

Very few people knew what to expect from Pugh. A longtime state legislator, she had won mostly by virtue of not being Sheila Dixon, who, having served her community-service sentence, ran again for her old job and narrowly lost. Pugh’s inscrutability extended to her bearing — she spoke in muffled tones, and her bangs often hung so low as to almost cover her eyes.

At the CitiStat meeting, a major topic of discussion was a rise in carjackings. Earlier that month, an 80-year-old member of the City Council was attacked by two teenage boys while getting into her car in a parking garage, leaving her with a black eye. Davis, the commissioner, and his deputy said that the carjackings appeared to be the work of violent drug crews, who were deploying teenagers to steal cars as an initiation of sorts, and then often using the cars while committing homicides.

Pugh grew agitated. The carjackings weren’t a law-enforcement problem, she said; they were a problem of footloose youth. Why wasn’t the meeting instead focusing on how to get teenagers into jobs or after-school programs? She declared the meeting a waste of her time and left. It was the last CitiStat meeting she would attend for at least six months.

Pugh seemed overwhelmed by the continuing violence. It was not until August 2017 that she announced her plan to counter it. It would be built around daily meetings to focus city services in high-crime areas — which she dubbed the Violence Reduction Initiative — as well as the addition of a Boston-based program for at-risk young people called Roca, and the expansion of Safe Streets, which deploys ex-offenders as “violence interrupters.”

At the core of Pugh’s plan was the notion that crime was driven by root causes. This was true, but it risked overlooking the most immediate dilemma: People inclined toward lawbreaking increasingly thought they could do so with impunity. Delivery of basic services to address root-cause problems was also undermined by the departure of key city officials, as word spread that Pugh was not easy to work for.

By this point, it was plain that the surge in violence was not simply going to abate. Robberies and burglaries had also risen sharply. The city’s population was falling again, nearing a 100-year low with less than 615,000 in a census estimate released in March 2017. There were other, more ambient signs of disorder: the dirt bikes, squeegee boys at intersections. The city’s bike-sharing program was so plagued with vandalism that it was eventually shut down.

That summer, Erricka Bridgeford, Shantay Guy’s friend at the mediation center, started Baltimore Ceasefire, an effort to get the city’s criminal element to put down their weapons for one weekend every three months. The group’s main slogan was straightforward: “Nobody Kill Anybody.” A second slogan was aimed at those inclined not toward violence but toward apathy: “Don’t Be Numb.” During the first cease-fire, that August, two men were killed. Bridgeford went to the scenes to mourn the victims.

Top: Erricka Bridgeford, organizer of Baltimore Ceasefire, leading a ritual to cleanse a murder scene with sage on July 31, 2018. Bottom: Kids participate in Baltimore Ceasefire activities. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum for The New York Times)

The Justice Department’s report, meanwhile, had led to the federal “consent decree” that the city negotiated with the department — a sweeping set of reforms of the Police Department that set out new rules governing stops and searches, internal discipline and much more. Gene Ryan, the leader of the police union, complained that his organization had been shut out of the process of drafting it. Tony Barksdale, who had been retired for three years and now spent his days trading stocks online, attacked it incessantly on Twitter, accusing city leaders of “handcuffing your own cops while turning the city over to criminals.”

One afternoon not long after Guy began her job as the consent-decree monitoring team’s community liaison, she strapped on a bulletproof vest and rode along with a city police officer to see the realities he and his colleagues faced. The officer started his shift at 9 a.m. and, because of the department’s shortage of officers, would work until 2:30 the next morning.

They cruised block after block of rowhouses in an especially drug-plagued area. The officer received a text message to disperse a cluster of young men — a frequent point of confrontation in the city. Young men often congregate in front of corner stores or liquor stores, sometimes just hanging out, other times selling drugs; the city would have a record 692 fatal opioid overdoses in 2017.

“I’m supposed to clear this corner,” the officer told Guy, showing her the address on the screen.

“Can you do that?” she asked.

“No,” he said. As he understood it, the consent decree barred him from dispersing the young men. So he didn’t. But then his phone rang. “I guess when I ignore a call, then I get a phone call telling me I need to do my [expletive] job,” he said. Which was indeed what the call was.

He and Guy drove to the address, where half a dozen young men in their late teens or early 20s were standing outside. The officer got out of the car and told them to move along. “The kids are angry,” Guy recalled; they had already been booted from a nearby corner that afternoon. “Like, ‘What the [expletive], we’re just standing here. We’re not doing anything, what’s going on?’”

For Guy, the moment affirmed her belief in the consent decree. This sort of rote policing seemed pointless; nothing was accomplished by confronting the young men beyond fomenting ill will. “The question for me becomes: What’s the intention for clearing the corners?” she told me. “Are you clearing the corners in white neighborhoods? The corners would not be so crowded if we actually became responsive to community needs.” This was, in essence, Pugh’s strategy — if only it could be made to work.

On Nov. 15, 2017, a veteran detective, Sean Suiter, drove with a partner to a blighted corner of West Baltimore to investigate a recent homicide. Suiter told his partner he had seen someone suspicious in a vacant lot and went to investigate. Shots rang out. His partner found Suiter bleeding from the head, his gun lying under his body. The 43-year-old father of five died the next day. His death was ruled a homicide, the 309th of the year.

The police locked down six square blocks around the scene for six days. Davis, the commissioner, pleaded with the community to offer tips to identify the “heartless, ruthless, soulless killer.” The death felt like the city’s reaching its nadir, in more ways than one. As the public learned in the week that followed, Suiter was scheduled to testify the next day before a grand jury in a vast corruption case that federal prosecutors filed earlier in the year: a conspiracy that painted a picture of a Police Department that, amid the lawlessness of the city, had descended into widespread lawlessness itself.

After the trial concluded, a dozen officers gathered at headquarters for a focus group, convened by the department to solicit their input on new policies stemming from the consent decree, on which they were to start receiving training in 2019. But the officers had no interest in talking about the decree, according to one participant. Instead, they vented about the impossibility of doing their job in a department in meltdown. They were bitter about being constantly “drafted” into mandatory overtime — departures and anemic recruiting had left the department with only 2,500 sworn officers, down 500 from five years earlier.

Police tape off the scene of the murder of Jason Reuben Haynes. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum for The New York Times)

A change in how the department scheduled shifts — made during Batts’ tenure at the urging of the police union despite the warnings of Barksdale and Bealefeld — had helped cause the city to pay $47 million in overtime in 2017, three times overbudget; some days, 40 percent of patrol shifts were being staffed with mandatory overtime, wearing down officers. The officers were also angry about the lack of resources and equipment. They fumed over the conflicting orders they received. “It’s: ‘Go out and stop crime, but don’t hurt anyone’s feelings,’” the veteran officer told me. “‘Be aggressive — but not too aggressive.’”

In January 2018, Pugh replaced Kevin Davis with a new commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, but De Sousa resigned five months later after federal prosecutors charged him with failing to file tax returns for three recent years. The interim commissioner, Gary Tuggle, had barely stepped into the revolving door of leadership when he found himself facing fresh crises: an officer who quit after being caught on video pummeling a man on the sidewalk, another found passed out drunk in his patrol car, a top commander who quit after throwing a chair against a wall during an argument at Police Headquarters.

And then there was the stunning conclusion of the independent review panel investigating the death of Suiter: He had most likely committed suicide in the vacant lot and made it look like a cop-killing, the panel ruled in August. The investigators believed his suicide was possibly due to his ties to the corruption case.

On a hot day in mid-August, several dozen city officials, police officers and commanders gathered at a bedraggled shopping plaza in the Highlandtown section of southeast Baltimore for one of the regular neighborhood walks that Pugh was conducting in her effort to exude a sense of authority. The mass of suits and uniforms did a slow circuit of a few blocks of rowhouses, trailing behind the mayor. “Watch your step,” someone called out as the group neared a dead rat.

A neighborhood leader pointed out problem spots: a dark block where prostitutes congregated, a bus stop in front of a liquor store that allowed loiterers to claim they were waiting for the bus, piles of trash. It was far from the city’s roughest neighborhood, but Pugh was visibly taken aback by the disorder on display. She expressed particular displeasure over the trash bags that had been piled into containers in advance of pickup day. “You don’t see trash out front in Ashburton,” the middle-class black enclave where she lived, she said under her breath.

Two weeks later, I met Pugh in her office in City Hall. The month was on its way to ending with 30 homicides, almost one per day. But when I started to ask her about the surge in violence since 2015, she cut me off. “If you follow the trends lately, since November of last year we’re trending downward,” she said.

“They’ve trended down only so much,” I protested.

Pugh looked down at an iPad, swiping through crime-data summaries. “May, we had almost a 30 percent reduction in violence. In October of last year, when I created the Violence Reduction Initiative, the following month, November, we dropped by almost 18 percent. We dropped again in December, in January, in February.”

“Year to date right now,” I replied, “we’re barely below where we were last year, and last year was our worst year ever.”

“No,” she said.

“We just had more than one a day this past month,” I said.

“This has been one of the worst months, but we’re about 20 percent down in homicides this year thus far,” she said. “That’s tremendous in comparison with last year.”

“We’re very likely to end up at 300 again this year,” I said.

“We’re very unlikely to get to 300 this year,” she said.

There were 17 homicides in a single week in late September. The year would end with 309 homicides — the fourth straight year above 300. It was the early 1990s all over again — or even worse, considering that the city was now registering comparable numbers despite having 100,000 fewer people living in it.

Mayor Catherine Pugh on a walk around Baltimore with city and law enforcement leadership. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum for The New York Times)

In mid-November, Pugh announced her choice for the next commissioner: Joel Fitzgerald, the police chief in Fort Worth, Texas. But reporters at The Sun discovered overstatements in his resume; the City Council expressed doubts about confirming him; and he himself seemed ambivalent. Finally, after Christmas, with the city in its eighth month without a permanent commissioner, Pugh told reporters that she was considering bringing back Tony Barksdale, as head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

It was an intriguing development, given how outspoken Barksdale had been in his criticisms of current department leadership and of the consent decree to which the city had committed itself. When I met with him a second time a couple of months earlier, in October, he told me he did not doubt the need for reform; he was mortified that some of the corrupt officers had come from the plainclothes teams he created. But he was worried that things had gone too far. “The criminals are so emboldened now,” he said.

The decree’s demands had made it too difficult for officers to clear drug corners, he said. He was hearing from his former colleagues that loiterers were already reciting the limits it imposed on the officers to them on patrol, mockingly. (I had heard similar reports from a community activist who favored the decree.) Its broadened definition of “use of force” — physical actions that officers had to document in reports, which went on their records and would be scrutinized — made officers less likely to bother engaging physically.

“What do you think happens when these guys see the cops not getting out of their car?” Barksdale said. “Years ago, if I pulled up and said ‘Let’s move,’ they moved. Now who has the control? They have control.” Citizens lose trust in the police not only if they abuse their authority but also if they do nothing about people wreaking havoc on their community. “Look at the number of bodies,” he said. “We’re losing horribly in Baltimore City.”

It was two days later that Da’mon Guy Jr., Shantay Guy’s stepson, got off the bus in the northwestern part of the city. As he began his walk toward home, a purple Volvo SUV pulled up with four or five people inside. He heard the locks click open. As he ran, he heard a shout, then a gunshot. It didn’t register that he was hit in the lower back, he said later, until he realized that he couldn’t get up. He called his own ambulance.

Pugh visited him in the hospital several times. She was in the room when Da’mon, unable to speak because he was intubated, texted his stepmother: “Am I going to die tomorrow? Do my legs work?”

A couple of days later, he went into cardiac arrest. Doctors and nurses rushed in. Da’mon Sr. was in the hallway, out of his mind with panic, shaking and screaming. “He was just OK! I was just with him! He was just OK!” People were trying to restrain him. “Just let me see him!” he screamed.

As the blip of Da’mon’s heartbeat returned on the monitor, Guy tried to calm her husband: “Can you hear it?” she said. “Just focus on the sound.”

As Guy recounted the story in the cafe, I asked what she thought had driven the surge in violence. It was the perception, she said, that “police officers are not doing their jobs, and folks out there doing dirt see that they’re not doing their jobs and whatever they’re doing they can get away with.”

This was not so different from what I heard from Barksdale (who would learn in early March that he wasn’t getting the City Hall job), but she insisted the answer was not a return to tougher tactics. “Tony and I aren’t going to agree,” she told me. “I’m always going to be looking at what’s throwing the children in the street: What’s happening upstream to get them there?” That applied even to the person who shot her stepson, she said. “What happened to him or her that made this OK for them?” she said. “I believe they’re victims, too. I really do.”

Guy had recently left her role with the consent-decree team to take a job at a civic-leadership organization, but she was still involved in police reform. She would be leading meetings around town in which yet another new commissioner would be introduced to residents: Michael Harrison, late of New Orleans. Pugh had settled on him after the Fort Worth chief pulled out in January. Harrison seemed a good fit, someone who knew what it was like to police a violent city. And he came from a department that had been in deep turmoil, after Hurricane Katrina, and was now operating under its own consent decree.

On nine occasions, Guy stood alongside Harrison as he listened to the crowd turning out to see him. A vast majority of questions were from residents, most of them African-American, asking for the department to provide their neighborhoods with more officers and a more energetic response to crowded corners and other signs of disorder.

One of the meetings was in a school auditorium in Edmondson Village, a section of southwest Baltimore that has been especially hard hit by the surge in violence. Last summer, just a few blocks from the school, a 7-year-old girl was fatally shot in a car off Edmondson Avenue, the thoroughfare that the transit rail line that Hogan canceled would have run along. A police officer had been sitting in his cruiser a block away with the windows up; residents rushed to alert him.

The meeting was standing room only. “We just want to feel safe, period,” Monique Washington, president of the Edmondson Village Community Association, told Harrison. “Our people are in fear, and we’re tired.”

An hour into the forum, a neighborhood resident named Renee McCray stepped up to the microphone. She described how bewildering it had been to accompany a friend downtown, near the tourist-friendly Inner Harbor, one night a few months earlier. “The lighting was so bright. People had scooters. They had bikes. They had babies in strollers. And I said: ‘What city is this? This is not Baltimore City.’ Because if you go up to Martin Luther King Boulevard” — the demarcation between downtown and the west side — “we’re all bolted in our homes, we’re locked down.” She paused for a moment to deliver her point. “All any of us want is equal protection,” she said.

It was a striking echo of the language in the Department of Justice report and the activists’ condemnations of the police following Gray’s death. Back then, the claims were of overly aggressive policing; now, residents were pleading for police officers to get out of their cars, to earn their pay — to protect them.

You could look at this evolution as demonstrating an irreconcilable conflict, a tension between Shantay Guy and Tony Barksdale never to be resolved. But the residents streaming into these sessions with Harrison weren’t suggesting that. They were not describing a trade-off between justice and order. They saw them as two parts of a whole and were daring to ask for both.

Latest Stories from ProPublica

Current site Current page