It’s hard to think of a more volatile mix: Four young black males from Baltimore City, accused in the death of a white female police officer in Baltimore County. Authorities say three of the teenagers were breaking into homes when the fourth ran the officer over in a stolen Jeep.
Predictably enough, social media, call-in radio and other forums blew up. A sampling from the Baltimore County Police & Fire Facebook page:
“I was hoping they’d kill him during apprehension. What a waste of life. He’s currently breathing air some decent person could be breathing.”
“I personally am tired of good for nothing hood rats committing adult crimes and people STILL saying crap like, he had hard times growing up, society made him do these things because he had no role models.”
“I hope all you whites have the same level outrage next time one of your youths decide to shoot up a school of innocent children,” another wrote. “You all are a disgusting group of devils.”
No previous case has generated as much online reaction, county fire spokeswoman Elise Armacost said. Authorities pleaded repeatedly for civility, and county staff took down comments that contained profanity or were typed in all caps. But they have struggled to keep up with the avalanche of angry postings – many of which called for the accused driver to be hanged, shot, run over or raped.
“Sadly, these comments are a microcosm of the conflicts and lack of civility we see in the country right now,” Armacost said.
Stephanie DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, has long studied Baltimore youth. She’s also the daughter of a 40-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. She described the “absolutely awful” case as a kind of perfect, polarizing storm.
“It touches on all these intersections – of race, policing, city-county,” said DeLuca, co-author of the 2016 book “Coming of Age in the Other America.”
“Once fear is sparked, anger is sparked,” she said.
Authorities say the teenagers were burglarizing homes in Perry Hall Monday afternoon when Baltimore County Police Officer Amy S. Caprio approached the Jeep. They say driver Dawnta Harris, 16, of the Gilmor Homes public housing project in West Baltimore, ran her over.
Caprio died a short time later. Harris and three other youths were charged as adults with first-degree murder.
That the black youths had driven to the county, populated in no small part by decades of white flight from the city, fueled heated exchanges online and over the airwaves.
Where some saw predatory “animals” and “thugs,” others saw demonization and a rush to judgment. Finger-pointing between city prosecutors and state juvenile officials only added to the fire.
“It’s time that we just turn the city over to the hoodlums and just let them annihilate themselves,” one commenter wrote on The Baltimore Sun‘s Facebook page.
DeLuca said the anger obscures an important point: Most young people in Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods are going to school or working or both, not out on the streets and creating mayhem.
“They’re looking for something to do, something to be about,” she said. “This is about human development, personal development, and finding meaning and dignity, and these are in short supply in Baltimore.”
Instead, she said, it’s people like Harris, who authorities say fled home detention this month while awaiting sentencing for a car theft, who are “viewed as the norm.”
“The thing I think is important to remember is this is not the typical kid,” DeLuca said. “But no one wants to hear that in the face of this tragedy.”
And indeed, online comments tend to follow a pattern: A poster calls for the suspects to “ROT in prison & actually they should get the DEATH PENALTY!” Others chime in with similar proposals, until eventually someone demurs, perhaps expressing empathy for the youths’ families or pointing out that police have killed suspects but escaped accountability. Then that draws a backlash, and the cycle continues.
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SOURCE: The Baltimore Sun, Jean Marbella