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Freddie Gray Riots Reveal Long-Simmering Tensions Between Baltimore Locals and Cops

A history of allegations of police brutality and harassment in poor, black Baltimore neighborhoods was the powder keg that exploded into city riots over Freddie Gray's death.
Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

As riots erupted on the streets of Baltimore this week in response to the death of Freddie Gray following his arrest by police, longtime residents of the city said that resentment between black communities and police had been mounting for years.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that 109 people had died between 2010 and 2014 after police encounters in Maryland, 31 of them in Baltimore. Nearly 70 percent of the total were black, and more than 40 percent of them were unarmed.


Despite the numbers, officers faced criminal charges in only two percent of the 109 cases in that span. The discrepancy helps illustrate what Baltimore locals describe as a long history of animosity between police and the public that culminated in Monday's clashes.

"People have been hurting in this area for years," Aziza Minor, a Baltimore native who attended one of the neighborhood clean-ups that were held this morning, told VICE News. "There is neglect, negligence, harassment."

She referred to Gray's death as an "unfortunate catalyst" for the riots, but noted that the real grievance is the fact that "people die everyday."

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An investigation by the Baltimore Sun published in September that compiled payouts related to cases of police brutality in the city was something of a watershed for residents. It revealed that Baltimore had paid some $5.7 million since 2011 in settlements and judgments concerning lawsuits brought by more than 100 people.

"The Baltimore Sun exposé opened the Pandora's Box," Heather L. Pfeifer, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Baltimore, told VICE News. "Everybody knew it, it wasn't a surprise. It just had never been collated and organized — the litany of cases — and put it out there for everybody to see. That was the airing of the dirty laundry."


More than 60 percent of the city's population is black. Though Baltimore's police force is racially diverse, Pfeifer said that it does not mirror the demographics of the city.

"The relationship between the police and the Baltimore city community has been strained to say the least," she noted. "It dates back decades, and what you're seeing today I think is the culmination of a brewing tension and distrust and animosity between the community and the police. The Freddie Gray case pushed it over."

Though the Gray case is being investigated this week, many residents are doubtful that the police will find criminal wrongdoing on the part of officers in Gray's death. According to Pfeifer, too many other police brutality cases resulted in a slap on the wrist of offending officers who quickly resumed their duties and were sometimes accused of the same offenses again.

"I think it's going to be wise to have other independent investigations," she said, "because to be frank I don't think anything that comes out of the police will be trusted at face value."

Related: Riots in Baltimore: National Guard 'On the Ground' with City in State of Emewrgency

Despite the overwhelming presence of Baltimore cops in poor neighborhoods, the authorities said that they were the ones who found themselves overwhelmed when the riots broke out on Monday.

"They just outnumbered us and outflanked us. We needed to have more resources," Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told reporters late Monday night. "On Saturday, we were giving them space to have their First Amendment rights. When they started breaking windows and doing criminality, that's when we changed our attitude to engage them, to arrest those who were causing harm."


Though the city imposed a curfew on juveniles under the age of 17 on Monday night, Batts said that he didn't implement a comprehensive curfew because he lacked the personnel to enforce it and needed to wait for the National Guard and police from other districts to be able to restore control over the crowds.

"I don't know if it's going to get worse," Batts said. "I think the curfew is going to help us to get the city under control…. What you saw tonight is that we were pulled so thin."

The contrast between the department's heavy presence and use of force on normal days and its inability to control the crowds on Monday boils down to a lack of resources and an effort to exercise restraint and allow protestors a certain degree of leeway, Pfeifer said.

"They're short for the size of this metropolitan area. They are understaffed and there's been funding cuts," she said. "But it was also, I think, that the police know the cameras of the world are watching. This is all over the major news channels, and the impetus for these protests was an alleged case of police brutality, so you've got officers knowing the cameras are on them…. I understand that, but that reluctance allowed this to escalate."

The internal police review of Gray's death is supposed to conclude by Friday, at which point the results will be announced.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen