E.R. Shipp: Police should be crime fighters, not social workers

Published on: June 21, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

Illustration of E.R. Shipp, Creative in Residence for The Baltimore Banner.

The ultimate victims of the violence in Baltimore – out-of-control violence, some might say – are the children growing up in neighborhoods that aren’t marketed to tourists and future residents.

This year 11 kids under the age of 18 had been killed as of June 13, including 6-month-old Legacy Bell. While she died in March, her brutal beating was not classified as a homicide until the conclusion of an autopsy this month. Most of our dead children have been shot.

The toll is measured by more than death, however, as three recent encounters brought home to me.

The first occurred a few Mondays ago at the Rotunda, where I was casually having a Starbucks cold brew on the plaza. I overheard a woman talking casually about upcoming plans: “And then I’m catching a flight to LA Monday. …”

My head was reeling from a string of news stories about violence, including one about somebody shot or killed on Normal Avenue. What’s normal about shooting someone — and on a Sunday at that? The woman’s words oozed with an unconscious confidence in a future — even a few days of future — that too many Baltimoreans are not permitted.

Later that very day the point was made more starkly with news of the massacre of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas. In a gun-obsessed nation, and in our city awash with guns, the children are imperiled. We cannot even pretend to guarantee the song lyrics “I believe the children are our future.”

That song, “The Greatest Love of All,” also includes this line: “Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.” That brings me to a second experience.

I attended a field day at an elementary school in West Baltimore where the children’s laughter and squeals reminded me of more carefree days running and ripping, as we say, in my hometown, Conyers, Georgia, which was then more rural than exurban. Spring and summer days seemed easygoing, but we didn’t know the all-seeing eyes of the elders in our close-knit community assured that someone was nearly always watching us. We felt free to be kids.

So did these Baltimore elementary schoolchildren on a bright festive day. For them, this was an opportunity to play in the school’s seemingly vast field: running relay races, tackling obstacle courses, kicking around a soccer ball, jumping rope, shooting basketballs, tossing water balloons, even riding ponies.

A casual query from me about how often the kids have access to this oasis in the concrete jungle brought a startling response: The students aren’t often let loose, and that’s not because of a staff shortage. No, the problem is the ever-present threat of violence. When planning outdoor recreation, school leaders must anticipate the possibility of stray bullets from heedless shooters as well as bullets aimed at any gathering of people of color. Even little people of color.

Organizing a field day means more than securing popcorn machines, some games and parent volunteers. Think Buffalo. In May a crazed 18-year-old white male scouted around before deciding that a supermarket in a Black neighborhood there was ideal for eliminating as many Black people as possible.

So instead of the laughter of children, it’s the slaughter of children that influences plans for what quite a few of you reading this took for granted years ago. School leaders restrict outdoor time and carefully rehearse plans for quickly whisking their charges to safety.

It is commonplace to trace the beginning of murder madness to the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while he was in police custody in 2015. Every year since then homicides have topped 300, and many thousands more have been shot and stabbed. The unwritten rules of engagement are no longer followed, so no one — not grandmothers, not pregnant women, not babies in cribs — and no place — not schools, not churches, not hospitals — is off limits.

Baltimore’s problem with gun violence predates 2015, as mothers like Alice Oaks can tell you. Her two adult sons were killed six years apart, in 2008 and 2014. She now leads an anti-violence group that supports families of homicide victims, Survivors Against Violence Everywhere (S.A.V.E.).

What changed in 2015 was how the police respond. When Gray’s death and the uprising brought scrutiny by news media and federal officials, some cops took the attitude that if they couldn’t bust heads and run roughshod over people of color, then they wouldn’t do much of anything. A federally enforced consent decree now requires police to operate within the bounds, but it does not prevent them from making lawful arrests. Nor should having an empathetic police commissioner mean that arrests fall by the wayside.

Earlier this month, Commissioner Michael Harrison joined Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby at Alice Oaks’ gathering of families and friends of homicide victims in a memorial garden at the Cylburn Arboretum. Harrison assured them that he and his department were “fully committed to making sure that we find, arrest, prosecute and convict those responsible for doing harm in our city, for bringing trauma to you and your families.” But he also said that he and others in law enforcement were committed to searching for “the root cause issues of why these young men even in the first place pick up a gun, let alone decide to pull that trigger.”

This is where things get a bit whack. We don’t need the police to be social workers and psychologists. We need them to be crime fighters. We need them to develop an effective policing strategy that deters crime. How to do this is the question no one has effectively answered. But people have ideas. I have heard more than a few solid citizens say that we need the National Guard or we need curfews for people under age 18. Ray Kelly, a community organizer who has made police reform and safe streets his life’s work, wants the police to have greater visibility in neighborhoods, not sitting in patrol cars, but actually walking the beat. He and others, like Victory Swift, want to see more efforts at community engagement so that cops know the people and vice versa.

At the end of the ceremony at the arboretum, Swift made an impassioned plea on behalf of families “who suffer perpetually for the senseless acts of violence.” In 2017, her 19-year-old son, an artist and an amateur boxer, was murdered.

“The city can’t do it alone,” she said. “We have to help. We have to be vigilant. We have to be determined. We have to be hellbent and furious in order for this to stop. Our complacency and our fears will not do it.

“If we live in fear, we die in fear,” Swift added. “Our children are dying in the streets. We can no longer be used to, accustomed to our children being stolen from us.”

For those for whom this is not obvious, hear me: Black people want to be safe just as much as other people do. We want criminals held accountable, period. We also want government funding for efforts to address those root causes. The two goals are not mutually exclusive, because if we truly believe that the children are our future, we will not rest until this city is safe for all of them.

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