Krystal Gonzalez took the podium more than two hours into a lengthy hearing on the Baltimore Police Department’s internal review of its actions leading up to the Brooklyn Day mass shooting. Her powerful testimony ground the hearing to a halt.
Gonzalez is the mother of 18-year-old Aaliyah Gonzalez, one of two young people killed at the annual cookout that erupted into an exchange of gunfire after hours of growing tensions at a party where several people flashed weapons but police chose not to intervene.
In heart-wrenching detail that pierced through the more bureaucratic conversation that preceded it, Gonzalez described how she first received word of the shooting, only to learn that her daughter was not at the hospital. Instead, she was lying on the ground in Gretna Court, covered in a white sheet.
At the City Council hearing on the Brooklyn Day shooting, Gonzalez relayed how she felt reading the internal review by the Baltimore Police Department, and took particular issue with the comments from Foxtrot, the agency’s air unit.
In the hours before the shooting, the helicopter unit radioed to officers that there was “nothing suspicious” about the growing crowd, and that everything appeared normal.
“I challenge you, what is your normal?” Gonzalez asked, her voice strained. “‘Let them take each other out.’ Is that your normal?”
The emotion behind Gonzalez’s comments overshadowed much of the incremental updates given by police brass earlier in the hearing, and appeared to stun City Council members to the point where the chair of the public safety committee decided to recess the hearing and pick it back up at a later date, yet to be announced.
“That was a lot, it was very hard to hear,” Councilman Mark Conway said after a brief five-minute break following Gonzalez’s testimony. “In the everyday conversation that we have here, it’s not often that we get to see first-hand the impact it has on families. … I don’t feel comfortable continuing to have this conversation. We’re going to go into recess, we’re going to bring everybody back. We still have work to sort out.”
Over her close to 10-minute testimony, Gonzalez described Aaliyah as an honor roll student who stayed out of trouble and who did “everything her father and I asked her for, and then some.”
But, because of what happened in the early hours of July 2, the words “Brooklyn Day shooting” will “repeat” in her head “rent-free” for the rest of her life, the 40-year-old mother said. At one point on July 1, Gonzalez recounted being compelled to give Aaliyah a hug, thinking back now on how the spirit must have moved her to go to her daughter in that moment.
Before leaving the house, her mother recalled, Aaliyah said to her, “‘Mom, I’m getting ready to leave. I love you, and I’ll see you later.’” Her mother told the council chamber: “I don’t think this is what she meant when I saw her later that night.”
Gonzalez’s voice rose and grew shakier over the course of her testimony, and afterwards she returned to her chair. Conway sat next to her, comforting her. She continued to weep, calling out, “This should never happen again. This should never happen again.”
The chamber went quiet, and the public safety chair escorted Gonzalez out of the room, where she walked into the arms of acting Police Commissioner Rich Worley, who embraced her.
Former police commissioner’s right-hand man on the way out
Before the hearing turned to Brooklyn Homes, Deputy Commissioner Eric Melancon told the City Council’s public safety committee that he would be leaving the Police Department shortly to move back to New Orleans.
Melancon, who headed the agency’s Compliance Bureau, was the chief of staff for former Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. The two came to Baltimore together from New Orleans, where they shepherded that police department through its federal consent decree.
In Baltimore, Melancon oversaw the efforts to do the same here. He was a fixture at quarterly court hearings on the Police Department’s consent decree. His departure follows Harrison’s early June exit, which itself was the subject of much speculation.
Acting commissioner tight-lipped about disciplinary process
The post-shooting report, released at the end of August, revealed numerous points in the hours prior to the mass shooting in which high-ranking supervisors and patrol officers alike took a hands-off approach to the Brooklyn Day crowd, choosing not to intervene or request more units, even as 911 calls from citizens grew more frequent and more desperate.
In the wake of the shooting, department leaders and Mayor Brandon Scott have accepted blame for shortcomings that may have prevented violence, and, as a whole, the department’s internal investigation highlights just how disconnected the agency is from residents in certain overlooked parts of the city.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Acting Commissioner Worley was pressed about the disciplinary process and some missing details from the agency’s internal review, including the names of officers and their race.
Worley, along with Melancon, maintained that the agency had to be careful about the level of detail disclosed in the report because it could otherwise interfere with internal investigations that could lead to disciplinary action. That included declining to detail the number of employees who have been notified of disciplinary charges against them.
But Melancon did point out at least one officer who will be facing disciplinary charges — the officer who radioed, “We might need to redirect that call to the National Guard” after police received a call about the gathering. Melancon said the employee has been referred to for discipline for an “inappropriate comment.”
Worley said the only personnel change so far as a result of the shooting has been the reassignment of Sam Hood, who was the major in the Southern District, and his replacement by Major Jason I. Bennett.
Questions from Council focus on community policing — or lack thereof
Many of the questions from City Council members focused on the breakdown of community-police relations in the Brooklyn neighborhood and the overall failures of the Police Department to make progress on so-called “community policing,” which relies on open and proactive information sharing between officers and residents.
Worley has conceded that community policing is the “one area of the consent decree” the department is falling behind on, and has contended that it would be his No. 1 priority as police commissioner.
“Community policing was my strong point in the Northeastern and Northern districts when I was there, and it will be my strong point as commissioner,” Worley said.
Still, in the wake of the department’s investigation of its failures to respond proactively to Brooklyn Day, Council President Nick Mosby argued the agency’s reckoning comes up short in addressing the real problem. The Brooklyn Day shooting laid bare the department’s disconnection from the South Baltimore community it polices, he argued, a fundamental problem that narrow policy changes won’t fix.
“I just get frustrated when we talk, we talk, we talk. We come up with these nice recommendations from systems perspective, from operation and procedures perspectives,” he said. “And we’re not really talking about the root of the issue.”