Baltimore is again closing in on 300 murders, a grim milestone that it's passed every year since the Freddie Gray riots in early 2015. The relentless carnage has the city on edge, and has undermined public confidence in the promise of a police overhaul.
"People are less concerned about police reform right now than they are about their own public safety," says Kinji Scott, a minister, community activist and opponent of current city leadership. Scott lives in Baltimore's northwestern district, and has seen multiple murders in his neighborhood, some within steps of the local police headquarters.
"It pisses me off when people keep talking about reform," he says. "We're talking about our safety and being able to walk out of our houses without being shot."
Scott is African-American, and believes in the broad goal of making policing more respectful and constitutional. But he objects to what he sees as the term "reform" being used an excuse for overly-cautious policing.
One example is the new reluctance by Baltimore police to "clear corners," that is, to disperse crowds from known trouble spots. After the Freddie Gray riots, an investigation by the Justice Department under President Obama found the practice to be one of several that potentially violated residents' civil rights.
Scott has made common cause on this issue with a former police officer, Anthony Barksdale, who was a deputy commissioner in charge of operations in the decade before the Freddie Gray incident. It was an era of falling crime rates, and Barksdale credits the more aggressive policing tactics of that time, including the clearing of corners. Now, when he drives around Baltimore, he seethes with frustration over what he perceives as police inaction.
"Look over there!" he says, pointing out a cluster of about 20 men on a street corner. "You got people who are selling drugs, and the cop is sitting right there — and they're sitting on the damned police car!"
Barksdale, who's also African-American, uses a term that's more often heard from conservative critics of the Black Lives Matter movement: "That's de-policing. This is what you're seeing — this is de-policing!"
Barksdale and Scott both blame the current murder wave on Police Commissioner Kevin Davis.
"I've heard those sentiments out there, particularly from the peanut galleries of the world," Davis says.
Davis, who is white, was hired after the Freddie Gray riots and is now charged with implementing a federal consent decree, which the city negotiated with the Justice Department in the last days of the Obama administration. He says the department is now committed to a new, "holistic" style of policing.
"This profession can no longer occupy geographies with cops and stop everyone who moves in hopes of catching a few bad guys," Davis says.
It's a challenging time for a project like this. The Baltimore city police department is already dealing with continuing resentment from rank-and-file cops, who suspect political motives were behind the failed prosecution of six officers linked to Freddie Gray's in-custody death in 2015. Davis has also had to cope with the repercussions from a scandal involving members of a police task force who've been charged with stealing overtime pay and even robbing civilians.
Of all the challenges facing Davis's effort to revamp his department, the continuing high murder rate may be the most serious. He says he knows big-city police departments are judged by the murder rate, but he says there are other aspects to good policing.
"Just like people don't want to see dead bodies and drug dealers on their corners, they also don't want to be mistreated by police officers. They also don't want their sons and grandsons pulled out of their cars and arrested for contempt-of-cop offenses," Davis says. "So we have to do both."
As signs of progress, he points to the lower number of shootings by police, and the decrease in complaints about excessive force.
"I would say the police commissioner has one of the toughest jobs on the planet," says Bilal Ali, a state legislator for one of the hardest-hit sections of Baltimore. "It's damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Ali says police reform remains a priority for his majority-black district, but pressure is growing.
"I think a lot of people are tense," Ali says. "We have a community that has been traumatized. If you go through our city, you probably can't go five blocks without seeing balloons that are attached to a light pole. And they're not for celebrations — they're there because someone lost his life."
But Ali still supports the police department's move away from what some have called the "zero tolerance" policies that pushed down violence rates in the years before the Freddie Gray incident.
"I think [my constituents] want constitutional policing," Ali says. "Don't go outside of the law, and target and profile people. A lot of those people may be on the corner because that's their neighborhood!"
But when you talk to people who live in or near the city's murder hot-spots, you also hear a certain nostalgia for old-fashioned corner-clearing. Sean Shuler, also in the nortwestern district, says crowds used to disperse as soon as a cop rolled up.
"When they saw the police it was just, OK it's time to leave. You know, when he pulled up, you know, he shook his head, you already know, you had to leave," Shuler says. "Now, it's like, they pull up and you still got 20 people sitting there."
And what does he think of that change?
"It's bad! Because if you're letting all these guys stand around that means more things is gonna happen. As soon as the officer's gonna pull off, there's gonna be a shooting."
The debate over police reform and "de-policing" often comes down to arguments over specific tactics in specific places. Most people in law enforcement agree on the long-term goals: policing should be respectful and constitutional. The question, says Peter Moskos of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the short-term.
"We have this problem right now that in certain neighborhoods of Baltimore, like the western district, at current levels of violence, 20 percent of men will be murdered in their lifetime," Moskos says.
"In the short-term... if an intelligent, and more pro-active, and somewhat more aggressive — legal and constitutionally aggressive — form of policing can cut violence in half, we need to put that option on the table."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Baltimore is closing in again on 300 murders. It has passed that grim milestone every year since 2015. That was the year of the Freddie Gray riots, which led to the current effort to reform Baltimore police. The unrelenting carnage in the neighborhoods has eroded residents' faith in a kind of police reforms that have been pushed in big cities since Ferguson. NPR's Martin Kaste has our story which includes some strong language.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Kinji Scott is a minister and a community activist. He's riding through his neighborhood in Baltimore's Northwestern district.
KINJI SCOTT: You'll see homicide right there. See that? - right there.
KASTE: Scott's pointing out some balloons tied to a lamppost. It's a memorial. Other murder sites are unmarked, but he has them memorized.
SCOTT: A man was killed right there in the middle street by that tree. There's two people killed right there.
KASTE: The other man in this car, the one driving, is Anthony Barksdale. He's a retired Baltimore cop. He was deputy commissioner in the years when crime was dropping. Now he spends his time blogging and tweeting about what he sees as the inaction of Baltimore police. He's frustrated at what he's now seeing in the streets that he used to patrol.
ANTHONY BARKSDALE: And look at this. Look at this corner. When I worked, I'd pull up and say clear the corner.
KASTE: Here, he's talking about a group of people hanging out at a known trouble spot. He says Baltimore cops used to clear corners like this to reduce the likelihood of a drive-by or walk-up shooting. Barksdale turns up another street and then practically jumps out of his seat.
BARKSDALE: Look over there. You've got people selling drugs. And the cop is sitting right there...
SCOTT: They're sitting on the police car.
BARKSDALE: ...And they sat on the damn police car. That's de-policing.
SCOTT: Just like the ones you saw...
BARKSDALE: This is what you're seeing. This is de-policing.
KASTE: De-policing - in law enforcement, this is a touchy word. You hear it mostly from conservatives and critics of the Black Lives Matter movement. People who say the protesting has made police too cautious, that it's cleared the way for killers in places like Baltimore and Chicago. But here in this car, the de-policing word is being used by two black men. What's more, Kinji Scott, the community activist, says this.
SCOTT: People are less concerned about police reform right now than they are about their own public safety. That's why it pisses me off when people keep talking about reform. We're talking about our safety and being able to walk out our houses without being afraid of being shot.
KASTE: And the man they blame for all this - the police commissioner, Kevin Davis.
KEVIN DAVIS: I've heard those sentiments out there, particularly from the peanut galleries of the world, about the police officers de-policing or taking a knee.
KASTE: Davis, who's white, is the face of the police reform process in Baltimore. He was hired from outside after the riots. And now he's implementing the federal consent decree that was negotiated with the Justice Department in January, the last of the Obama-era police reform deals.
DAVIS: This profession can no longer occupy geographies with cops and stop everyone who moves and hopes of catching a few bad guys.
KASTE: And Davis says this new approach is doing some good things. There are fewer complaints now about excessive force and fewer shootings by officers.
But reform also faces some serious headwinds. Rank-and-file cops are still angry about the failed prosecution of six officers connected with the in-custody death of Freddie Gray. There's tension with the union and fallout from new police corruption scandals. Still, the greatest challenge to reform is the stubborn murder rate. It's a tension that Davis recognizes.
DAVIS: Just like people don't want to see dead bodies on their streets and they don't want to see drug dealers on their corners, they also don't want to be mistreated by police officers. They also don't want their sons and grandsons being pulled out of their car and arrested for contempt-of-cop offenses. So we have to do both.
KASTE: The thing about this debate in Baltimore and in other big cities like New Orleans and Chicago is that everyone agrees on the big-picture goals. Police should be respectful and act constitutionally. The arguments come when you talk about specific tactics in specific places, say, the old Baltimore practice of clearing corners.
SEAN SHULER: When they saw police, it was just - OK, it's time to leave.
KASTE: That's Sean Shuler, also a resident of the Northwestern district, recalling how corner clearing used to work as opposed to now when the cops show up.
SHULER: They pull up, and you still got 20 people sitting there.
KASTE: Is that bad or good?
SHULER: It's bad.
SHULER: It's bad because if you letting all these guys stand around that mean more things is going to happen. So soon as the officer pulls off, it's going to be a shooting.
KASTE: Shuler is black, and he wants police to be respectful. For example, he didn't like the way plainclothes cops here used to jump out of cars to harass people in the neighborhood. But given how bad things are right now, he thinks some of the old tactics do make sense even if they run afoul of the federal consent decree. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Baltimore.
(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC'S "TIME IS THE ENEMY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.