Being a Black Police Officer in Baltimore

PHOTO CREDIT: Kaitlin Newman for Buzzfeed News
PHOTO CREDIT: Kaitlin Newman for Buzzfeed News

Like many of the boys in his neighborhood, Leonard Hamm learned early to be wary of the police officers — many of them black like him — who patrolled the streets of South Baltimore in the 1950s and ’60s. Hamm remembered the officers as bullies, philanderers, and carousers, a largely corrupt force that rarely protected or served the people of the community.

“I had no respect for police,” said Hamm, wearing a finely tailored dark-blue suit and shaking hands with nearly everyone who crossed his path on a recent afternoon at Baltimore City Hall. “I thought they used their power to the detriment of the community.”

Hamm’s suspicions were confirmed at 16, when, he said, an officer arrested him and two friends for “obstructing the path” of a sidewalk while he picked up a pair of pants from the dry cleaners. Hamm said he spent the night in jail and had to appear before a judge, whom his father successfully convinced to drop the charges. The experience only hardened his misgivings about law enforcement.

“I never really got over it,” said Hamm, then a team captain and star of City College High School’s city champion basketball team.

Hamm might have held on to that grudge for much longer if he hadn’t eventually needed a job. After graduating from college in Philadelphia and working in New York as a fabric designer, Hamm returned home in 1973 looking for a job. He knew the police department had some openings.

“I knew I would be a good hire: a black boy with a college degree who had never been in trouble,” Hamm said. “I went in looking for work, a paycheck. But I found out in the police academy that law enforcement had grabbed my heart.”

Thirty years later, after steadily rising through the ranks, including a high-profile appointment as the first black commander of the Central District, Hamm was named the police commissioner of his hometown. At 6 foot 2, broad-shouldered, plain-spoken, clean-shaven, and nattily dressed, Hamm, 66, still possesses the self-confidence of the Big Man on Campus he once was and the salesmanship of someone who’s been in leadership roles for two decades now.

Today, Hamm is the police chief at Coppin State University, a historically black university of about 4,000 students in West Baltimore. Given his experience and position, Hamm is perfectly situated to take the gospel of policing to some of the city’s most disinterested parishioners.

Hamm’s career seems like an exemplar for what criminal justice experts call “community policing”: a theory of proactive, less antagonistic law enforcement that prizes officers with close ties to the neighborhoods where they work. The Baltimore Police Department has often signaled a renewed commitment to that philosophy, saying, “Community relationships are important, especially in difficult times” in a recent report.

And in a city where nearly a fifth of black residents are unemployed and more than a fourth live below the poverty line, a career in law enforcement — which can start at nearly $50,000 a year — has been a reliable path into the middle class in a city where few others exist. Nearly 40% of the 2,646 sworn police officers in Baltimore are black, according to a community policing report, a figure that dwarfs much larger cities like Los Angeles and Dallas.

If the purpose of community policing is to bridge divides between law enforcement and the community, in Baltimore that project has all but failed. Nearly half of residents polled in the 2013 Baltimore Citizen Survey rated police protection as “fair” or “poor,” and the authors of the OutcomeStat Conference report in September noted “negative perception of police has likely increased in the recent months due to the death of Freddie Gray.”

Despite the financial incentives for a career in law enforcement, and a sizable black presence on the force, tensions between the black community and law enforcement are as high as ever. And that leaves Baltimore’s black officers facing the difficult contradiction of being both cops and members of a community that distrusts law enforcement.

That burden was actually part of the appeal for William Porter, who dropped out of junior college and entered the police academy in 2012 hoping to restore trust in law enforcement in the same poverty-stricken neighborhoods where he grew up. Instead, many worry that the involvement of Porter and two other black officers in the April 2015 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered a fatal neck injury in police custody, has only exacerbated the divide between Baltimore’s black neighborhoods and the black officers who patrol them. Which, accordingly, could make it more difficult to convince the children of those communities to someday don a badge and uniform themselves.

Gray’s death led to protests and, ultimately, riots in the same streets Porter had patrolled for the past three years. Porter’s subsequent trial, the first for the officers charged in Gray’s death, ended with a hung jury in December. His second trial is scheduled to begin June 13.

Porter’s plight perhaps offers more evidence that, despite boasting a police force that comes as close as any in the nation to representing the city it serves, community policing in Baltimore might always have its limits. In fact, it might be impossible, because the police cannot alleviate longstanding problems like joblessness and poverty, and because the institution itself remains marred by substantive — and repeated — accusations of carelessness and brutality, and the ethnic composition of the force has done nothing to change that.

“That’s what they wanted: a kid from the neighborhood, knows the neighborhood, knows the culture,” Lt. Kenneth Butler, a 30-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department and president of the Vanguard Justice Society, the union for the city’s black officers, said of Porter. “That’s what Baltimore Police looks for. It’s a disappointment.”

Hamm joined the force in 1972, not long after a time when black officers could not patrol white neighborhoods and weren’t even assigned squad cars. The department officially integrated in 1966, but struggled with allegations of racism, and discrimination and harassment against its black officers, for years after.

“When I first joined the police force, I realized right away that I’d have to have two souls,” said Edward C. Jackson, a black Baltimore police colonel who retired in 2004 after 22 years on the force and now teaches at Baltimore City Community College. “I had to go out and be the beacon of hope that African-Americans expect you to be and not offend the white power structure. I struggled with that my whole career, to walk that line.”

This was a police force where, in the 1980s, one officer used to perform in blackface. However, the respect and support that often eluded black officers within the agency could be found in the streets and neighborhoods where they worked and lived.

“There were still not too many high-ranking African-American police officers as I grew up in the ’60s and late ’50s,” said Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s first elected black mayor in 1987 and now president of the University of Baltimore. “But they were well-respected … where you thought of them as a part of, not apart from, the community.”

Hamm said he and several black officers would also regularly go play pickup basketball around the neighborhoods where they worked after they got off of their shifts. “We weren’t afraid to go back in the community,” Hamm said. “The community didn’t intimidate us. We never mistreated the community. They never had beef against us — their beef was against authority and the institutions.”

Hamm said he also earned a reputation in the department — and, as a result, in the streets — for pushing back against its entrenched culture of brutality. On his first day, Hamm recalled, he had to chastise officers who seemed eager to beat up one of the arrestees in the police van.

“If you get in there with my prisoner, I’m telling on you,” Hamm remembered telling the other officers. “I was looked at strange. But I wasn’t having it. There was resistance when I wanted to do things the right way, instead of participating in the police subculture.”

It was during this time when the department welcomed more black officers into its force. One in particular, Bishop Robinson, led the way for the others in the ’70s and ’80s, steadily rising through the ranks and gaining influence with each promotion. He also fortuitously made his climb during a time when Baltimore’s demographics shifted quickly and dramatically: Blacks went from 46.4% of the population in 1970 to 54.6% in 1980.

By 1983, 12-year incumbent mayor William Schaefer, who was white, was facing criticism in his re-election campaign from opponent William “Billy” Murphy — then a judge on Baltimore’s Circuit Court and scion of a prominent black family that owned the local Afro-American newspaper chain — for not appointing a black police commissioner. Those swipes came not long after the city’s local NAACP branch called for a federal investigation into police brutality in the city.

”Why hire a mayor who wouldn’t hire you?” Murphy’s campaign literature asked of his black supporters.

Two months later, Schaefer nonetheless won the mayoral election in a virtual landslide — he earned 72% of the vote to Murphy’s 26% — and narrowly won a majority of black voters while rallying the support of many of the city’s black leaders. When Schaefer made Robinson the city’s top cop the next summer, he brushed off accusations that he’d been pressured into the appointment.

Robinson, too, avoided publicly musing on the racial implications of his promotion. “I don’t share the characterization of black commissioner, I wish you would refrain from saying that. The job is not color,” he told the Baltimore Sun. But even if Robinson wouldn’t acknowledge the historical context, his appointment still resonated to black officers throughout the department.

“That motivated me to get promoted and it motivated me to get other young African-Americans promoted,” Butler said. “I didn’t realize it at the time because I was so young, but people want to see people in charge that look like them.”

More skeptical was Murphy, who soon returned to work as a trial attorney after his failed run for mayor. “It was an inhospitable environment for black officers,” he said, noting that he’d represented officers in discrimination cases against the city several times. “There were lawsuits because of discrimination in the department. Discrimination which still persists to this day.”

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SOURCE: Buzzfeed News, Joel Anderson