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Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Criminal Justice Reform and Young People

How Freddie Gray outed Baltimore’s police brutality problem.

CREDIT: Flickr user Yianni Mathioudakis.

This story originally appeared in our summer magazine, an annual publication that features engaging pieces on issues affecting young people.

On Tuesday, April 28, 2015 West North Avenue looked like a war zone.  Trash and debris everywhere, the police presence remained strong.  Local residents worked to erase as much of the painful night as they could, stooping down in comfortable clothing to clean up rubbish amidst armored tanks and police officers clad in riot gears. Determined to clear as much of the wreckage from the aftermath of the protests as they could, residents prepared to do it themselves if the city wouldn’t help them.

This was a day after the funeral of a 25-year-old black man named Freddie Gray.  Earlier that month, Gray died after injuries sustained while he was in police custody.  After the Baltimore Police Department arrested Gray for allegedly possessing an illegal switchblade, police transported Gray in a police van—where he was not properly secured.  He died a week later due to neck injuries sustained during that van ride.

After Freddie Gray’s funeral, people were rightfully upset.  Emotions ran high and tensions ran thick.  Baltimore residents quickly took to the streets to voice their opinion on their long and tenuous relationship with the Baltimore Police Department.  Despite many local and national organizations’ peaceful protests, other people set buildings on fire and looted and damaged businesses, injuring residents and police officers in the cross-fire. In response, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in Baltimore. Emotions grew so tense the mayor instituted a curfew.  According to the mayor’s office, when it was all said and done, people set 19 buildings and 144 vehicles on fire and police arrested 202 people.  Politicians both local and national weighed in on the situation and political correspondents placed blame on everyone from the Mayor to local gangs.  For this period of time, all eyes were on Baltimore. What a shame that it had to come in exchange for the life of a 25-year-old black man.

What led to Freddie Gray’s death may have come as a surprise to many individuals around the country, but it was no surprise to those who have ever spent legitimate time in Charm city, as Baltimore is often called.  Police abuse and misconduct has been widespread in Baltimore for decade, leading to numerous law suits and large payouts to individuals who have challenged the city in court.  Baltimore paid $5.7 million to victims of police brutality between 2011 and 2014.  Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of police abuse and civil rights violations.

The Aftermath of the Baltimore Protests

Before Baltimore there was Charleston.  Before Charleston there was New York.  Before New York there was Cleveland.  Before Cleveland there was Ferguson.

“This is a reminder that there’s a Mike Brown in every town,” stated Deray McKesson, an activist and Baltimore native.  If Ferguson, Mo. was the catalyst to a national campaign to address criminal justice and policing concerns, Baltimore was the impetus.  A city a mere 40 miles from the nation’s capital—no one could ignore what was happening in Baltimore.  The fires kept blazing and the people kept marching.

Since the protests, the mayor of Baltimore and other community leaders have started the “One Baltimore” campaign in efforts to unify the city.  Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stated: “This is an opportunity for us to focus more intensely on systemic problems that have faced our city for decades, if not generations.”  The campaign wants to partner with churches, community groups, and philanthropic organizations.  While the campaign has no concrete initiatives yet, it’s a sign that Baltimore officials are ready to begin these difficult conversations.

Some other positive steps are being taken in Baltimore.  The city has raised additional funding to pay for more jobs for a summer youth employment program.  In 2014, Baltimore led efforts to place 5,600 young workers in employment.  This year, the city will expand the program and pay for placement for 7,000 young people.  The program, YouthWorks, places 14- to 21-year-olds in short-term jobs with public and private employers.  While the city can currently pay for 7,000 youth positions, they only have employment positions for 6,000.  This has led to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to call for businesses and employers to assist in boosting the program.

A new recreation center recently emerged near Lexington and Mount streets in the Franklin Square neighborhood in Baltimore.  It’s a beacon of hope for a community that has been recently scrutinized under the watchful eye of the entire nation.  The city’s youth have Baltimore fire dispatcher Arthur “Squeaky” Kirk to thank for the new center.  He wanted to see West Baltimore’s Martin Luther King Jr. recreation center revitalized, so he put up $30,000 of his own money into the new project.  Soon he was able to organize donations from local business, individuals, and the state government.

The reinvestment into Baltimore is pouring in from outside the city as well.  At the grand opening of the new recreation center, Governor Larry Hogan announced $3.3 million in state funding—a $1 million increase—to provide Baltimore youth with summer job opportunities and work experience through the YouthWorks and Hire Oneyouth programs.  He also announced $4.15 million for business recovery loans, homeownership, and targeted assistance for improvements for Baltimore businesses the riots affected.

Undoubtedly, Baltimore hasn’t been the same since the Freddie Gray protests and it likely never will be.  The entire community has been affected and an entire culture is on display for the country to evaluate.  Hopefully this means progress for Charm city, and the vulnerable and attacked will begin to receive the long overdue support and understanding they deserve.

Criminal Justice Issues Facing Young People

Over the last year, names like Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray have become staples in criminal justice reform conversations due to allegations of police misconduct and police brutality that ended each of their lives.  It’s important to note, however, that police brutality is not the only criminal justice issue that deserves scrutiny and attention.  One has to also investigate the school to prison pipeline, mass incarceration, current laws such as “stop and frisk,” gun violence, youth unemployment, police surveillance, and re-entry initiatives to fully comprehend the urgent state of criminal justice in America and our nation’s youth.  All of these issues disproportionately affect young people, specifically young people of color and more specifically black youth.  There have been countless Rekia Boyd’s over the last few decades, all of whom had community, family, and futures to look up to.  It is important for youth organizations to work to eradicate the mechanisms that made their deaths possible and that will take honest conversations, local and national organizing, and policy changes.

After the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore and the state of Maryland have attempted to address some of the other issues mentioned above.  The governor’s office created a panel to find ways to reduce incarceration and recidivism.  The panel will analyze how other states have changed their sentencing policies and produced change.  Christopher B. Shank, chairman of the council and head of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, said:

“The current revolving door of the criminal justice system is a drain on our economy.  We need these individuals to be contributing members of their communities.  The justice reinvestment process will ensure prison beds are reserved for the most serious criminals and low-level offenders are supervised through community-based programs that are proven to be effective.”

Baltimore is moving in the right direction—and for the youth who have been suffering there for decades, it’s about time.

America & Racism

At the heart of all of these issues is the dreaded “R” word – a word that has plagued American history since the arrival of the first group of African slaves on American soil centuries ago.  Racism, though not always overt, underlies many of the institutional barriers to progress for black people in America.  And it’s inextricably linked to the high profile cases of Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and so many others.

It’s no secret that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects the criminal justice system.  Although people of color make up 30 percent of the United States population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.  One in every 15 black males and one in every 36 Latino males are incarcerated compared to one in every 106 white males.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.  America also disproportionately incarcerates black women: according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, they’re three times as likely as white women to be incarcerated.

These are startling statistics considering the fact that an overwhelming majority of these individuals are in prison due to drug-related offenses.  Although rates of drug interaction are comparable across racial and ethnic lines, black and Latino communities are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than whites.

In June 2015, a Texas police officer violently manhandled a 15-year-old black girl in McKinney, TX.  The entire ordeal was caught on camera and went viral almost instantaneously. Recorded yelling profanity at black teenagers outside of a pool party, the officer drew his gun on two black male teens before vigorously dragging 15-year-old Dajerria Decton to the ground, twisting her arm, shoving her on the grass, pulling her braids, and kneeling on her back. Other police officers stood by without intervening.

If a police officer treats a 15-year-old girl in a bathing suit with no ability to hide or harness a weapon or threaten an officer with such disdain, one can only imagine how the very same police officer would treat others. The violence perpetuated against black youth through law enforcement agencies is widespread and prevalent.  McKinney, TX could have been Portland, OR or Charlottesville, VA. This is not to say all police officers make it their mission to attack and criminalize black youth.  This is to say that some police officers harbor prejudices and profile black youth in certain communities.  This happens daily regardless of education level, demeanor, or appearance. It’s time for cities and communities to begin addressing this ugly epidemic.

Community Policing

One way to address these disparities is through community policing initiatives, which can come in many forms but unite around the idea that for communities to be safer, law enforcement and citizens must engage in healthy and open dialogue on a consistent basis.  This can look like sports programs for inner city youth, police foot patrols, or community forums hosted by the city. Law enforcement and community members come together in chasing the goal of safer communities for everyone, with the hope that further transparency leads to further understanding.

Some communities have a difficult time trusting the police.  But for progress to be made, conversations with police departments will be necessary to improve current conditions.  Community policing initiatives can work to bridge this divide.  Columbia, SC provides a great example of community policing at work. Melron J. Kelly, the deputy police chief in Columbia, has seen significant gains in community trust because of their proactive campaigns.  “The key is to being proactive versus reactive,” stated Kelly.  “We want our police officers to understand that they are public servants who serve as guardians rather than warriors.  When police officers are immersed in the communities they patrol—when they drive your kids to basketball practice or tutor them in math or science, they know these kids and hold a level of compassion that allows them to de-escalate tense situations.”

The Columbia police department promotes an ethos amongst their officers that emphasizes service.  It requires new recruits to spend a week volunteering, often working at homeless shelters, children’s hospitals, or soup kitchens.  The goal is to convey the importance of service to the community at the beginning of their training, their most impressionable time.  To immerse their officers in the communities they patrol, the department provides low-cost loans to officers wishing to live in the city of Columbia.

The residential officer program is designed to allow officers to become members of the communities they serve.  “When you live next to Columbia citizens, go to the grocery stores with them, you get to know them—if you encounter a combative situation with a city resident you can then address it with a level of compassion for your fellow city resident,” stated Deputy Police Chief Kelly.  This is not to say police and resident interactions are always positive in Columbia but it is encouraging to see the city taking a proactive approach to criminal justice instead of waiting for a tragedy to happen and then trying to conduct damage control.

What Next?

Criminal justice reform is not just a catch phrase.  These issues have real-life consequences that disproportionately affect young people, especially young people of color.  For there to be any progress, all parties must be open to having proactive dialogue on these topics.  Individuals that have traditionally not had a seat at the table need a seat—including those who have previously been incarcerated.  The truth is that there isn’t one clean-cut answer to all of these questions.  And yet, conversations on criminal justice reform are flourishing across the United States—conversations that were not happening a year ago.  There is hope for better days and hope is better than despair.  We can’t bring back those whose lives have been lost.  We can’t give those incarcerated unjustly their time back.  But we can advocate for change so these instances happen less and less. That’s what progress looks like in 2015.

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