Baltimore’s black community leaders call for community investment as method of police reform

Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay

As the conversation about police reform continues to evolve, black community leaders in the city of Baltimore are seeking to abandon the narrative of police reinvention, instead urging lawmakers to invest in existing community resources.

“I like the idea of ​​creating a world where peace is the norm, and so just like we are doing with the COVID outbreak – if the way we approached violence was like it was a problem of public health – then we wouldn’t be saying ‘well, let’s re-imagine’, we would be looking at what already exists in Baltimore,” said Erricka Bridgeford, founder of Baltimore CeaseFire 365, during a panel discussion hosted by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) Monday afternoon.

Van Hollen, Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott (D) and community organizers met virtually Monday to discuss alternatives to policing the city, including measures to deflect calls from mental health emergency from the Baltimore Police Department to other services, such as the Baltimore Crisis Response Here at the assistance hotline.

Edgar Wiggins, executive director of Baltimore Crisis Response, said his organization will have a pilot program up and running by early June that will automatically divert certain types of crisis calls — usually those that haven’t yet resulted in violence. or where no weapon is reported – police to their crisis hotline for further assessment.

The mayor said more information about the pilot program will be available in the coming weeks.

But Wiggins said people often didn’t have a clear idea of ​​who to call rather than the police.

“One of the things that I’m very aware of having trained police since 2004 is that people call 911 because there’s a problem,” he explained. “What they don’t understand is that when you call 911, you get a response from law enforcement, even though it’s not a law enforcement issue. “

With the wave of killings of black people highlighted nationwide at the hands of police in recent years, advocates have called for less funding for law enforcement and a dismantling of the status quo.

“It’s become very popular over the past two years to say #DefundThePolice and invest in alternative systems,” said Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of A Beautiful Struggle.

But Jackson said a fundamental problem with public safety in the United States lies both in the longstanding relationship between law enforcement and the black community and the inability of social service programs run by the government to intervene appropriately.

He stressed the need for community monitoring and control.

“To say that we should have alternatives to the police in America but not invest in community alternatives where black people actually control the institutions and civic formations that govern our security means that we are giving the task of security to white people. and white institutional formations,” he said.

Jackson compared this to “different sides of the same coin”.

“Instead of saying, ‘Black people are in control of safety in our community,’ we say, ‘[this] non-profit organization monitors safety in our community,” he said.

“What tends to happen is that black people are viewed as an afterthought; it’s the checkbox,” Jackson continued. “We’re not consulted up front — we don’t have control. And what happens in the end is you have a different version of the status quo.

He also said the concept of “defunding” or investing in policing alternatives isn’t hugely popular in the black community.

“The problem is most black people, our only option is more police or less police and if the police are what we say keep people safe, then more police is what black people will choose. And so I think people need to understand that’s why it’s unpopular because it seems theoretical,” Jackson said. “I feel like there are real institutions – real organizations working every day – that need investment and if we invest in these community alternatives…and making sure we have control, then this will be a real solution to get the murder rate down, to decrease violent crime. And that’s what black people would support, otherwise it’s an intellectual exercise for most people.

But city leaders are also tired of hearing the word “re-imagine,” noting that there are already community-based dispute resolution organizations trying to disrupt policing.

Bridgeford called it a “buzzword” that comes and goes like pumpkin spice lattes do in the fall.

“‘Reimagine’ is starting to sound like pumpkin spice to me,” she said. “We keep saying the word, but there are a lot of things that we don’t really have to reinvent. We can look inward in Baltimore to say what already exists…and can we prioritize nurturing those things instead of looking outside of our communities?

“A problem of media narration”

According to a homicide database maintained by The Baltimore Sun335 people have been killed in the city throughout 2020 and 96 have died so far in 2021.

“That has to change,” Scott said. “But doing the same will not make us a safer city, and my vision and directive is that we build the tools to change our approach to investing in prevention and response resources, while taking our responsible law enforcement agencies in a way that we did not have before.

Wiggins said that in his 28 years with the organization, the Baltimore Crisis Response typically responds to between 2,500 and 2,800 calls each year, “and that has to do with going around the corner. streets, has to do with going to people’s homes, has to do with getting to the station, sometimes called by the police because they need help. And during all these years, I am very proud to say that I never had a team member injured.

“And yet, when I recruit licensed clinicians to do this work. When I say the job is in Baltimore City, there’s…this perception of dangerousness and violence.

Asked how the city will continue to tackle violent crime while pursuing long-term goals of reducing police activity in black communities, Scott said it doesn’t have to be a situation. “Whether or”.

WYPR reported last week that Scott, who lobbied to cut the Baltimore Police Department’s budget before his inauguration, faced heat from voters and other city officials over a proposed budget increase. $28 million to the police department’s annual budget, bringing it to a total of $555 million. At the hearing, Scott defended the 5% increase, saying it was necessary for mandatory benefits.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D).

Scott said it’s critical that people – the media, in particular – look at the full picture behind violent crime rather than the “simple conflict” that results in the loss of life.

“I want to invite people – some members of the press – to come out and actually, when they’re not working, to spend some time talking to people in the camera-free neighborhoods about what’s really going on,” he said. declared. “Because what happens is you get these things and people try to oversimplify what’s going on.”

Scott said it was time to make the connection between systemic issues and what ends up in the news and that the two must be addressed simultaneously at the political level.

“When you’re doing this investment work in mental health, behavioral health, addiction work, that’s what fuels the violence,” he explained. “Because when people aren’t in the best mental state and they also have to deal with the pressure of living in neighborhoods that have been purposely divested, and where they’re stuck in poverty and they can’t not get away with it, no it doesn’t matter how many jobs they have, things get worse and you don’t know how to resolve conflicts.”

“There is no quick fix to this.”

Bridgeford chimed in, saying it was time to hold the media accountable for perpetuating a narrative that violence lurks around every corner in the city.

She said journalists were asking questions about the feasibility of the proposed reforms and reinvestment in the police, but were not involved enough in the community to understand how community organizations could accomplish these changes.

“Meanwhile, we’re trying to remind Baltimore that they are loved; we’re trying to remind Baltimore that they’re resilient; we try to remind Baltimore of all the beauty and power that is there,” she continued. “But when they turn on the TV, they don’t see these stories. They see no fuss about the work that has been done in Baltimore to help heal their lives. They just see the stories of violence and murder, and what’s horrible in Baltimore as if that’s all that’s going on.

Scott and the other panelists, all silent on the Zoom call, shook their heads in agreement.

“So before we come to these questions about what’s going to work, you all need to have conversations among yourselves: what is your responsibility to change the Baltimore narrative?” Bridgeford asked before picking up the conversation about Wiggins’ problem recruiting mental health clinicians.

“The man has worked with clinicians for over 20 years, but just saying the word ‘Baltimore’ scares clinicians of getting killed,” she said. “It’s a media storytelling problem, that’s what it is.”

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Jill E. Washington