While researching Baltimore’s handgun laws, I came across a sign up form for a police ride-along on the BPD’s website. Signing up and scheduling was a snap. On the 29th of October, I arrived at the Southeastern District HQ. Fell’s Point falls within this boundary and I thought I’d get a perspective on our community from the peace officers that serve here. Southeastern District encompasses far more than our relatively affluent neighborhood, however, and the beat of the officer I was assigned to was further north.
Arriving at the Station
Before the adventure could begin, the officer manning the desk ran my background check. I thought they ran one when I filled out the online form due to the information I had to provide, but I suppose if someone with warrants is dumb enough to walk right into the station and ask to ride around in a cop car, they’re happy to go ahead and show you a cell instead.
It came back ok so they gave me a kevlar vest. The description online was of an orange “safety” vest that wasn’t bulletproof and that I figured would have “DORK” written on it, so I wasn’t expecting this level of protection. The captain introduced himself and explained I’d be getting out of the car whenever my assigned officer did so I could get a close view of anything that happened. Oh. Ok. You sure you don’t want me to wait in the…? Cool cool cool. Ok.
One of the primary purposes of a ride-along is for potential recruits to see first-hand what it’s like to be a peace officer in Baltimore, and while I’m nearly 40, out of shape, overweight, got a bad back, and smoke far too many cigarettes, I suppose they wanted to see if I had the gumption to make the force. No worries. Journalism isn’t safe if you’re doing it right, either. Besides, I grew up in poor areas of DC and southern PG county where I was the only white guy without a crack habit for miles. How bad could Baltimore be?
How Bad Is Baltimore?
Sweet baby King Geoffrey, it’s bad out there. And this isn’t the most dangerous part of Baltimore, not by a long shot! But just a couple miles from our historic waterfront, poverty is rampant, the Bloods and Crips claim opposing blocks, and the drug trade thrives.
I saw streets strewn with garbage, I saw disheveled buildings, even one that was already half-collapsed. But that’s not the whole story. Gentrification is beginning its slow march into these impoverished areas. On some blocks, homeowners reside on one side of the street across from the residents of Section 8 housing on the other. This results in an understandable friction between the haves and the have-nots. Robberies are frequent here and will increase as we approach the holiday season. For owned but unoccupied units, there is a constant risk that squatters will enter your premises, destroy your investment, and you’ll have to go through the courts before the police can evict them.
A particular story I heard was of a unit owned by someone out of town that a squatter took had taken up residence in during their absence. Whether by neglect or malice, the squatter left the water running. It flowed until the floor collapsed from the damage. The advice I heard was to have someone check on your property at least once a week if you can’t be there.
Think of the Children
The owner’s presence isn’t enough to deter all criminal activity, of course. One resident had accidentally left her door open. Two children snuck in and stole her purse and wallet. No charges were filed on the condition the items were returned along with an apology. We passed by these kids and the officer stopped to check on their welfare. He asked if they were going to the store to buy noodles. “No,” replied the taller, “we don’t have enough for noodles.” This was the most heartbreaking moment of my ride-along. They were children of addicts and I can understand their plight. Children are not responsible for their parent’s sins, but they always pay the price. I wish I had asked the officer to stop and let me give them money. I didn’t. We drove on.
The officer I rode with had a strong rapport with many of the children we encountered along our drive, while very few adults would speak with us- usually those that had reason to work with the police, like the woman who had been shot three times the year prior. There is a strategy at play here. Many teenagers and adults are already jaded against the police, but if they can reach the kids, provide positive interactions, then there is hope to turn the tides of violence in the next generation.
Baltimore’s Biggest Killer
Suddenly the lights go on and we’re flipping around to speed down the street. Shot Spotter technology had registered two gun shots several blocks away and sent a notification to the officer’s phone. A few minutes later and we were at the scene along with half a dozen other officers. No one was running, no one was bleeding, and people hadn’t left their stoops. Probably a false positive. We split up into teams and searched for bullet casings that would be evidence a shooting had taken place, myself included. We didn’t find anything, but it was definitely the coolest thing that happened all night.
“The number one killer on the streets of Baltimore,” the officer I was riding along with told me, “is pride.” Well, ok, technically it’s bullets, but the reason they’re flying very often comes down to a perceived disrespect. It’s hard for me to fathom why an insult, a slight, or a dirty look is worth hurting another human being and risking jail, violence, and death. I suppose pride is worth defending when it’s all you have.
For Baltimore’s peace officers, disrespect from the community they serve is an expectation. The same people they triage from stab wounds while they await an ambulance one day will tell them to f*ck off the next. Such treatment is bound to sour your perspective over time, but for the officer I rode with, it was simply an aspect of the job. Either you can handle it or you can’t.
The most absurd aspect of the evening came from a stop at a mini-mart. While the officer checked in on the clerk, I noticed full face masks for sale. These weren’t solid black skiing attire, no sir. The faces painted on were menacing with grotesque smiles clearly meant to intimidate. I stared at them for minutes before asking the clerk “You sell a lot of these face masks?” He looked at me and half-shrugged. “Yeah.” It seems absolutely ludicrous to me that you’d sell an item that will almost certainly be used for violent crime, maybe even used to rob you. I suppose he felt safe enough doing so, whether that’s from police efforts or protection money paid to local gangs, though I’d still be worried about my karma.
My ride-along with the Baltimore Police Department was an amazing experience. At times thrilling, others quiet, I was always learning. The officer provided valuable insight and gladly answered my many questions. While the streets aren’t safe, I never felt like I was in harm’s way. I highly recommend a ride-along to any resident that wants to see just how difficult police work is in Baltimore and how much further we have to go before our city’s reputation to outsiders changes from murder and overdose capital. While the police’s own image has been tarnished in recent years, reforms are taking place. I saw officers who cared about this community and a team committed to ending the violence. And they are most definitely hiring.