While Baltimore Police Idle, Black Lives Perish

Baltimore residents fear the latest homicide spike is the result of police officers not doing their jobs in high-crime neighborhoods. Police say they fear reprisals from the law if they're too hard on suspects.

A protestor raises his fist outside of the Baltimore Police Department's Western District police station during a march and vigil for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Editor’s Note: February 2, 2015
After uncovering misattributed quotes in stories written by Juan Thompson, a former staff reporter, The Intercept conducted a review of his work. We were unable to reach two individuals quoted in this piece: Juan Nance and Sandy Bowers. The article also includes quotes attributed to an unnamed Baltimore police officer and an unnamed Baltimore Police Department spokesperson that The Intercept could not verify.


On June 6, a 16-year-old Baltimore girl named Arnesha Bowers went to a house party in West Baltimore where she met Donay Dixon, 23, and John Childs, 20. Later that night, Dixon and Childs followed Bowers to her northeast Baltimore home. Once there, police allege, the duo kicked in the basement window, sexually assaulted Bowers, strangled her with an extension cord, and then set her and the house on fire.

Dixon and Childs — purportedly members of the Bloods street organization — made off with $40, a laptop and an iPad. According to reports, the pair committed the heinous crime because they believed Bowers and her grandmother, with whom Bowers lived and who was at her job as a nurse at a local hospital, had money in the house.

Police arrested the two men three days later after scouring Bowers’s cell records and finding multiple outgoing calls to a cell phone belonging to Childs. The Baltimore Sun reported that Childs confessed to the killing and the burglary.

“We don’t, or I guess now I don’t, have that much money,” said Sandy Bowers, Arnesha’s grandmother, when I spoke to her by phone. “This is just so heartbreaking,” she said through tears. “I can’t believe she’s gone … for her to die like that.”

Bowers’s brutal murder is just the latest in a string of grisly homicides that have rocked a city still reeling from the civil unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19 while in police custody in west Baltimore. Indeed, the vast majority of the city’s 135 homicides so far this year have taken place in Baltimore’s west, southwest and northeast communities.

Overall, in Baltimore’s high-crime neighborhoods, arrests have dropped by 90 percent or more compared to this point last year. In west Baltimore, home to some of the worst violence and a significant chunk of the homicides, the arrest rate dropped by half from April through May. The drop in arrests has occurred at the same time as killings have increased.

In May alone, the Charm City saw 43 homicides, the highest monthly total in nearly four decades and more than double the 22 murders in April. Some of the murders in May included:

  • Jennifer Jeffrey and her 7-year-old son, Kester Anthony Browne, who both died of gunshot wounds to the head on May 28.
  • Elery Hudson was found dead in the street. Police initially thought he had been hit by a car, but they soon discovered that Hudson had been shot.
  • Two unidentified men were found dead after being shot in the head.
  • Local rapper Twizzle, whose given name was Antoine Johnson, was shot and killed in the middle of the day while standing outside a shopping mall.

“We’re battling the police and our own people,” said Juan Nance, an organizer with 300 Men, a local anti-violence organization. “It’s a shame, but this is the reality. I think the city, particularly the police, has written us off.”

Some residents, like Nance, have accused the police of failing to do their jobs in the city’s roughest, most downtrodden neighborhoods.

On May 26, after a bloody Memorial Day weekend in which nine people were killed, an anonymous Baltimore police officer appeared on Fox News and said, “After the protests, it seems like the citizens would appreciate a lack of police presence, and that’s exactly what they’re getting, no proactive policing right now.”

“I’m not surprised about the violence,” added another Baltimore police officer, who asked not to be identified. “It’s like a lot of cops are trying to stick to the protesters,” he told me. “It’s disgraceful how this is going down. I feel bad for the families caught up in this war.”

The president of the Baltimore Police union, Gene Ryan, released a statement in late May that seemed to confirm some police officers are not doing their jobs:

The criminals are taking advantage of the situation in Baltimore since the unrest. Criminals feel empowered now. There is no respect. Police are under siege in every quarter. They are more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty.

American police unions are some of the powerful and influential unions in the country. They are also the most sensitive. Any criticism directed at police officers is viewed as an attack on all police officers everywhere.

The Baltimore union’s Twitter feed is replete with articles highlighting the recent decrease in arrests and the uptick in crime. It’s as if the union is taunting the public and warning, “look what happens when you criticize the police.”

What’s happening within the Baltimore Police Department right now is hardly unique. Last winter, following the killings of two NYPD officers, the city’s police stopped making arrests for certain crimes. The NYPD was upset with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s earlier criticism of the department’s stop-and-frisk policy.

The union’s chief, Pat Lynch, even accused de Blasio of having blood on his hands. At the funeral of the two officers, dozens of police officers turned their backs on de Blasio when he stood to speak. The situation got so bad that department leaders threatened to withhold vacation time from officers until they started doing their jobs again.

What the residents of Baltimore seek from police isn’t difficult to comprehend. Like most people, they want to be free of harassment and brutality, but they also need the police to do their jobs and protect them from the most violent criminal elements of urban life. In the context of Baltimore, this means not targeting impoverished people hustling for a better existence who may be involved in petty street crime.

Despite this completely sane demand, it appears Baltimore police have initiated what is tantamount to a work stoppage, one that is particularly perilous for the beleaguered residents of Baltimore because the police strike isn’t denying them minor services they can find elsewhere. No, the refusal of Baltimore’s rank-and-file to do their jobs may actually be costing lives.

A Baltimore Police Department spokesperson provided a statement that read: “Baltimore police continue to do their best to protect law abiding citizens. There has been no stoppage.”

“If they want to complain, fine. But still do your job,” Nance said. “But right now we’re on our own out here.”

Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

Join The Conversation