Maj. Sheree Briscoe stood at the front of her police station like an armed hostess at a housewarming party.
“Welcome, welcome,” she said holding the door for a group of older neighborhood women coming up the stairs of Baltimore’s Western District police station, past the new burbling fountain and the outdoor phone charging stations, over the Thurgood Marshall quote carved into the pristine cement. “Here comes Miss Pearl. Oh my gosh, you brought your mama with you? I’m so glad you’re here.”
On a sweltering July evening, the women were arriving for a community meeting, one of the first since workers completed a $4.5 million renovation — largely privately funded — meant not only to update the 1950s-era building, but also to transform the city’s most beleaguered police station from fearsome to friendly.
“It’s a blessing to be able to welcome people back to the Western District,” said Briscoe, the station’s commander, as she directed residents to the former courtroom that has been converted into a high-tech (and heavily air-conditioned) community collaboration room. “We want everyone to feel comfortable coming here.”
Devastated by riots in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore is grappling with a record-setting spike in homicides — 199 so far this year, with what appeared to the 200th Wednesday afternoon, compared to 62 in slightly larger Washington — and a massive overhaul of the department under a Justice Department consent decree. Amid the relentless violence and internal turmoil, Baltimore is joining a growing list of cities betting that a better police station can lead to better policing.
From Brooklyn to Los Angeles, cities are folding the ideals of community policing into station blueprints, hoping their design can help close the growing divide between the people who work in the buildings and those who live around them.
“We’ve been hearing from chiefs and mayors all over the country,” said Leigh Christy, an architect at Perkins and Will, who has worked on station renovations in Los Angeles.
The West Baltimore outpost that reopened earlier this month features a public garden, free WiFi and — a rarity in this neighborhood — a pair of public restrooms. For their part, police have a state-of-art fitness center and spacious locker rooms, along with a lactation room and a place to launder the uniforms that are routinely soiled by urban police work.
The visitors admired the bright lobby and noted the uplifting sentiments embedded in the winding garden path (“Trust,” “Rebirth,” “Unity.”)
“It really doesn’t even feel like a police station,” said one of the meeting attendees.
But outside the station, where the city is reeling from one of the country’s highest per capita homicide rates, it was easy to find skeptics.
“All the things going in West Baltimore, and they decided what they really needed to do was make the police feel more comfortable?” asked Ray Kelly, a longtime Sandtown activist and president of the No Boundaries Coalition. “It’s going to take a lot more than a pretty building to make people around here want to go talk to the police.”
William Brown doesn’t begrudge the officers a few amenities in their workplace. “When you come in from the battlefield, you need a place to decompress,” said Brown, 60, as he sat on the stoop of his house across from the station, where he has lived for 36 years.
But he doesn’t expect the friendly public face to last. think they did this with goodwill, but it’s not going to stay this way, it never does,” he said. “In a few months the ‘No Loitering’ signs will go up.”
For years, the Western District station has squatted on Mount Street, a bunker in the middle of a troubled city’s most violent precinct. With blacked-out windows and high walls, the station had hardened into a symbol of police isolation well before the police van carrying the fatally injured Gray pulled up in 2015.
After the riots that followed Gray’s death, even starker barriers went up between the cops and the community. Jersey walls and fences blocked access to the station. The community council meetings that had been regularly held at the station were moved to a nearby Baptist church and residents of Sandtown-Winchester felt even more cut off.
“They just shut the place down,” said Elder Harris, the longtime pastor of Newborn Community of Faith Church who remembers when the station was opened in 1958 at a time when residents knew all the officers by name. “It became a gated community.”
Now police are hoping that a brighter, more open building will bring a dubious neighborhood back in.
“The idea is to create a place where citizens feel welcome and where cops want to work,” said Scott Plank, brother of Under Armour chief executive Kevin Plank and the founder of War Horse Cities, a nonprofit development company. The Baltimore Ravens donated to the effort (the community room is painted Ravens purple in recognition), along with other local businesses and philanthropies. The city reportedly put up about $1.5 million of its own.
The station’s once forbidding entrance has been stripped of the opaque window screens that blocked all views into the station. A high wall has been replaced with wide front steps that are emblazoned with Thurgood Marshall’s exhortation to recognize “the humanity of our fellow beings.” A freshly planted garden path fills one half of the entry lot; a completive Zen fountain sits on the other and behind the garden bench a cellphone charging station is meant to invite passing residents to stop and take advantage of the free WiFi.
The back-of-the-house features a state-of-art fitness center with yoga pads, medicine balls and free weights. The decrepit bathrooms with lead pipes and undrinkable water have been replaced with bright stone-lined showers and LED lighting.
In a converted cell block are spacious locker rooms modeled after those used at Under Armour’s corporate campus. The new lockers include gun safes and — in a nod to the unrest that gripped West Baltimore two years ago — enough room to store riot gear. The wall between the men’s and women’s locker room is movable and can be adjusted to fit the gender balance at the station, which is about 20 percent female in the Western District.
“We also added a small bunk room that will double as a lactation room,” said Ana Castro, the Baltimore architect who worked on the design.
There is still a clear divide between the public and police sides of the building. While the lobby is as spacious and sun-filled as one of Under Armour’s retail stores, the sergeant’s desk has been placed behind a thick sheet of plexiglass, a move to help officers feel secure in part of the city where hostility toward police remains strong.
“It’s still a dangerous place,” Castro said. “Policing is still a dangerous business.”
The balance between access and safety is one police departments across the country are trying to strike. In Chicago, the architectural firm led by MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Jeanne Gang has championed the concept of the “polis station,” a mixed-use facility of gyms, housing and green space for use by cops and residents alike.
Few cities are as far along as Los Angeles, where the 1992 Rodney King riots eventually led to a $600 million bond measure devoted to rehabbing — and rethinking — police stations. The chief imperative was busting the fortress-forms that had dominated public safety architecture in the city since the 1950s, particularly in the violence- and scandal-plagued Rampart Division, west of downtown Los Angeles.
L.A. officials sought to convert a bunker that was a effectively a no-go zone for many residents into a welcoming neighborhood entity. Foreshadowing the choices Baltimore designers would make years later, designers replaced walls and barriers with lawns and landscaping and filled the interior with light.
“In the old Rampart station, the only public space was about 300 square feet right in front of the desk,” said Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charles Beck, who was captain of the Rampart Division at the time of the redesign. “The new one has about an acre of lawn that is used by the public every day. You’d see people sitting on blankets there right now.”
Whether the changes actually improve police-community relations or lower crime is a hard question, even for supporters of the approach. Beck, who thinks the changes have helped in Rampart, said architecture is an invaluable chance for a department to express its values in concrete-and-glass form. But there is little research to test the role of station design in policing.
“Is there a statistic that says opening up the front entrance produces a 10 percent reduction in crime?” Christy asked. “No. Some of this is hard to measure.”
In Baltimore, activists say they are less concerned with the research than with ongoing violence crisis.
Harris, who lived near the station for more than 30 years, said he was glad to hear about the free WiFi and happy the officers had better working conditions. But he would rather see money spent on the neighborhood’s dire need for addiction treatment.
“This is window dressing,” he said.
Kelly, too, said the new station was far down on his list of priorities. But he expressed confidence in Briscoe.
“If this helps her do her job, fine,” Kelly said. “But I don’t see it.”