The morning sun had just reached West Baltimore when William Tyler stepped out of his rowhouse into a neighborhood that, nearly seven months after the riots’ fires had been extinguished, was still smoldering.
He stood for a moment in the long shadow of the battered public housing project across the street, where Freddie Gray spent much of his time before suffering a severe spinal injury while in police custody on April 12 and dying a week later. Tyler, 44, knows many outside this world hoped that the charges filed against the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest would bring a measure of peace and optimism to a place chronically devoid of both.
Instead, in the riots’ wake, violence has exploded. Earlier this month, the city topped 300 killings in a single year for the first time since 1999, bringing the near-constant sound of blaring sirens and droning helicopters to West Baltimore and the deployment of dozens of additional officers to the most desperate areas.
Now, the long-troubled relationship between law enforcement and the community where Tyler has lived since childhood faces a new, complicated test as the accused in Gray’s arrest and death go on trial. On Monday, jury selection begins in the case against the first officer, William G. Porter, and with it comes a sense of foreboding likely to linger over this city for months to come.
In Gray’s old neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, it is nearly impossible to find someone who says that they believe prosecutors will deliver a single conviction. Such certainty has led to intense fear here that, if the officers do indeed go free, the community will erupt in unrest far more destructive than what happened in April.
“There’s going to be killings, shootings, buildings burning,” Tyler predicted, echoing what so many of his neighbors also say.
He hopes he is wrong.
Tyler knew Gray, who played with his kids and ate fried chicken at his home and whose body he glimpsed in a white casket at a funeral attended by hundreds. Tyler also understood him, because he had once traveled the same path.
In his teens, he joined a gang, sold drugs, had confrontations with police. Tyler knows he could have lost his life to the streets, and fled them only after the more than seven years he spent in prison did irreparable damage to his children, including two sons now serving terms behind bars.
He has a steady job and, along with other activists, has stayed in this community with the hope of making it better.
More chaos, he knows, won’t help Sandtown or its children. That includes his youngest son, 4-year-old Delante, who on that morning carried a red “Cars” backpack, but at a peaceful protest months earlier had sat on Tyler’s shoulders as gatherers chanted, “No justice, no peace.”
Delante gripped his father’s hand, and they walked north toward the boy’s school. They passed Gilmor Homes, the crime-plagued project, and rounded a corner that three hours later would be claimed by drug dealers.
Just behind them, a man had been found with a bullet in his chest six days earlier. A block beyond that was a mural of President Obama imploring passersby to walk “down the right path.” One block farther was the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District station, the base of operations for 120 officers sworn to protect a community that often views them as oppressors — a perception that one of the area’s new commanders says he is determined to change.
Tyler doubts much improvement is possible, at least for now.
What so many people don’t understand, he said, is that the rage his community exhibited after Freddie Gray’s death only had so much to do with Freddie Gray. It was also about abandoned rowhouses left to rot and forsaken addicts left to die. About the absence of places where kids can safely play and the near-nonexistence of good jobs. About generations of poverty and lifetimes of perceived mistreatment by police.
“You can only shake a bottle for so long,” Tyler said, “before the bottle busts.”
Robert Jackson’s radio crackled to life.
A dispatcher rattled off a series of streets. Two cars speeding amid gunfire. A crash followed by a bailout. People running. The 41-year-old police captain turned his unmarked Ford cruiser and joined a speeding caravan of flashing lights and sirens.
In front of a Sandtown school where parents were in a PTA meeting, the officers found an empty pickup truck — a bullet hole in the driver’s side door — smashed into a parked car.
“Let’s see what we got,” the captain said as he pulled up.
Jackson didn’t know Freddie Gray and hasn’t met William Tyler, but he knows their neighborhood, because once, it was also his. The crash scene was less than a mile from where he grew up near Mondawmin Mall, site of the riots’ origin. Jackson entered the police academy as an 18-year-old in 1993, Baltimore’s most murderous year before this one, when per-capita killings reached an all-time high.
He worked his way into a district along the quieter waterfront, far away from where he had grown up. But when West Baltimore was set ablaze during April’s pandemonium, Jackson asked for a reassignment to one of the most difficult jobs in American law enforcement.
Soft-spoken and reflective, he manages a cadre of officers and street-level supervisors contending with crime in a compact district where homicides have tripled this year.
Both the community and the police are trying to figure each other out, said Jackson, who knows several of the officers being tried in the Freddie Gray case from a previous stint in the district. Residents allege harassment and brutality but at the same time accuse uncaring officers of turning their backs on crime amid the toxic climate.
“People don’t know how they want to be policed,” Jackson said.
He has worked for leaders with varying strategies to end violence and, at the height of the war on drugs, was part of zero-tolerance policing that swept up stumbling addicts and low-level pushers, leading to 105,000 arrests in a single year.
But the drugs never stopped flowing. Jackson estimates the area hosts up to 40 open-air heroin and cocaine markets.
Earlier that night, before the shootout, the captain slowed his cruiser at a crowded corner on North Avenue to check on a group of teens sitting behind a gas station. He made sure they saw him but didn’t order anyone to leave.
There was a time when Baltimore cops would roll up on such gatherings and proclaim areas “indicted,” feigning a judicial order as a ruse to clear public streets. Those tactics, Jackson said, “created the atmosphere of distrust” that still persists today.
“A citizen complained about a corner, and we swept in, made arrests and the corner was clear for the rest of the day,” he said. “As a young officer, we thought we were doing great. But it was a short-term fix. The next day, the dealers were back.”
He also acknowledged, though, that what police are doing now has not curbed the drugs or violence. “It doesn’t take much to know that this isn’t working,” Jackson said, asserting that solutions “are bigger than the police.”
At the crash scene, as Jackson stepped out of his cruiser, a woman rushed out of the school and embraced him. Lisa Mills, 55, is a Gilmor Homes resident and recovering addict who had twice been locked up — for theft and drugs — but was now hugging a police captain and reminding him that she needed gifts for her Christmas drive.
Out of Jackson’s earshot, Mills said she tries to convince neighbors to cooperate with officers but added a caveat to his thesis that people don’t know how they want to be policed: “Nor do the police know how they want to police.”
Later that night, Jackson strolled around the corner of North and Penn, epicenter of the chaos. He passed the looted CVS, now rising anew, as people emerged from surrounding shops. Some acknowledged the captain and a few called him out by name. He walked by a line of vacant rowhouses plastered with black-and-white posters. They read: “we must stop killing each other.”
The riots shocked Jackson, but he is optimistic that they will not happen again, regardless of the trials’ outcomes.
The captain thought back to the hug Mills gave him. That’s how he measures success now, not in arrests of dealers and junkies. Jackson also counts how many people know who he is. On that night, his tally reached about a dozen.
“It’s hard to throw a rock at somebody,” he said, “when they know your name.”
A half-dozen young black men stood at the intersection of Mount and Presbury — where Gray had been dragged screaming to the back of a white police van in April — and debated how to fix their neighborhood.
Minutes into the conversation, a Baltimore police cruiser pulled up. Their voices quieted. The officer, also black, looked at them, and they looked back.
No hellos. No waves. No nods.
As the cruiser slowly drove away, one of the men said he was surprised the officer hadn’t asked them to disperse. Then, as if the cop had never been there, the debate resumed, led by a bearded man in a wheelchair.
“You see this?” asked Morvin “Pooh” Jackson, motioning to a lot across the street. “Vacant houses. There ain’t no change.”
If the police and the people here agree on anything, it is, as the captain argued, that solutions go beyond law enforcement.
Jackson, a 39-year-old community activist who is not related to the commander, had long wanted the block of five boarded-up rowhouses next to Gilmor Homes to be replaced by a rec center, but such things require money and support — both of which he had found hard to come by.
Then, as he talked, someone noticed two strangers drive by in a silver car that had been rolling through the neighborhood all day — perhaps, the group wondered, looking for someone to rob. They disbanded minutes later.
Jackson asked a friend to push him to a store up the street. He pointed with disgust at an overgrown lot strewn with trash. Jackson, who sports two gold teeth and speaks with a quiet certainty, talked of coat giveaways and free meals he had recently helped organize, but said his Thanksgiving event was still short on turkeys.
Inside the store, conversation turned to the upcoming trials. Neither Jackson nor his friend said that they believed Gray, who both men knew well, would get what they consider justice. And if the officers are acquitted?
“It’s going to be trouble,” Jackson declared. “I’m getting my grandkids, and we gone.”
The men headed back down the road to a plot of grass that held six wooden boxes packed with dark soil and vegetable seeds, the start of what Jackson hoped would be a sustainable source of fresh food for an area without access to much.
Behind the plot was another wall covered in a memorial that, below the words “Stolen Dreams,” listed the names of nine dead.
Jackson could have been one of them. Partially paralyzed since being shot in a 2001 carjacking, he and William Tyler are among the men in Sandtown trying to use their troubled pasts as a tool. The goal is to persuade children to spurn the pervasive violence in a city that, a recent study showed, is among the worst places in America for boys to grow up.
Each man sold drugs, narrowly avoided death and embraced second — or third or fourth — chances.
Tyler, known as “Uncle Will” to nearly everyone here, regained his right to vote and own a gun and works as a caretaker for the mentally disabled. He tells his story to anyone who will listen, hopeful that how far he has come illustrates to young people that the streets are not their only option.
They and many others here have ideas on how to rehabilitate West Baltimore, but almost none of the oft-repeated fixes — better schools, rec centers, jobs — include the help of police.
“For what?” said Jackson, thinking of Gray. “They killed my little homeboy.”
The sun had long set on West Baltimore when Brandi Murphy stepped outside and lit a Newport. Behind her was the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center, widely considered to be Sandtown’s safest after-dark destination for kids.
Inside the aging building, about 40 children were eating their free dinners: turkey sandwiches, canned pears, potato salad. Murphy, 36, director of the program since 2013, knows the names of hundreds of neighborhood kids. To dozens of them, she has become a surrogate parent. She is strict — no sagging pants; always “yes,” never “yeah” — but has also paid for prom dresses and graduation gifts and, once, planned a baby shower.
And now, on a rare break, she looked out over a wide, empty field that, to her, perfectly illustrates West Baltimore’s lofty challenges.
The park, Murphy said, is meant to serve youth sports teams. In summer, her kids like to eat lunch on the bleachers, but dealers often use the area to give out heroin samples. She and her staff have been reluctant to call police, fearing retaliation. A few months ago, a man running through the field was shot to death.
Murphy once stopped her rec center teen boys from playing tag there. She knew what it might look like to a passing officer.
“Teenage African American boys running,” she explained, “is a problem.”
One night, several of those boys were playing “Madden NFL” on an Xbox 360 in the rec center’s small computer room. All said their parents had spoken to them about dealing with police.
“Act mature,” said 13-year-old Dominik, reciting his instructions.
“Stay away from them,” said 15-year-old Tyrese.
Their perceptions and fears are shared by much younger children, said Christa Johnson, whose 6-year-old daughter also uses the rec center.
Earlier this year, a white officer pulled her over for driving without headlights on. The exchange was congenial, she said, but it still frightened her daughter, who leaned forward from the back seat and looked up at the cop.
“Are you taking my mommy to jail?” the girl asked.
How to fix the relationship with police is just as confounding as how to end the violence. Every teen crowded around the Xbox that night had witnessed it in some form.
Dominik saw someone get stabbed on North Avenue. “I started walking faster,” he said, “and didn’t look back.”
Amid a pickup basketball game, Tyrese watched a man get shot. He dropped the ball and ran.
The threat of bloodshed is relentless, as Murphy was reminded three days later.
Standing outside the rec center, she heard two gunshots pop in the night. They sounded close.
Murphy shut the front door and quickly walked to the far side of the building, where two boys stood outside and, nearby, six teenage girls danced to the snap music of “Betcha Can’t Do It Like Me.”
“You guys come in, quick. I just heard a gunshot,” she said. “Just in case. Just in case.”
And not just in case the bullets fell their way. “I don’t want any of them to be viewed as suspects,” she said, “just because they were standing outside.”
The group shuffled in. The girls found a quiet corner and kept dancing. The boys returned to their video games. And outside, in the darkness, the drone of a helicopter and the blare of sirens drew closer.
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis in Washington contributed to this report.
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