How Baltimore's Catholics are still working to heal their communities

Credit: Addie Mena/CNA.
Credit: Addie Mena/CNA.

.- After the Justice Department issued a scathing rebuke of Baltimore’s policing abuses, local Catholic leaders maintained it must be a “starting point” for racial reconciliation.

“We all need to stay involved. We need to make sure that this isn’t the end, [that] we don’t see this as 'as far as we go'. This is just a new starting point with another tool,” Ray Kelly, president of the Central West Baltimore community advocacy group No Boundaries Coalition, told CNA.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department released the findings of its investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, which the agency said was ordered in May 2015 after repeated allegations of possible police misconduct from Baltimore’s citizens and civic leaders.

What the agency found was a “pattern of civil rights violations” by the department.

“BPD makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; uses enforcement strategies that unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression,” the report stated. It also told of “an inadequate response to reports of sexual assault” by the department.

The information was compiled from discussions with civic leaders, community leaders, citizens, and police officers, as well as ride-alongs with officers, police documents, and internal police data.

“Community members living in the City’s wealthier and largely white neighborhoods told us that officers tend to be respectful and responsive to their needs, while many individuals living in the City’s largely African-American communities informed us that officers tend to be disrespectful and do not respond promptly to their calls for service,” the report stated.

“Members of these largely African-American communities often felt they were subjected to unjustified stops, searches, and arrests, as well as excessive force.”

Catholic Charities of Baltimore condemned the abuses detailed in the report. Executive director William J. McCarthy called the report “sobering and distressing” and added that it “should be a cause of great concern for all of us.”

“It is clear from the report that nothing short of a wholesale change in the culture within the BCPD will result in the kind of reform that is necessary to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of every citizen,” he added, noting that the police commissioner has started to implement some “long overdue reforms” which “is an encouraging start.”

Kelly explained to CNA that abuses by the police are nothing new, despite a continued push for reform by community leaders.

The “police tactics are crafted to control our communities, and we’ve been saying that for years,” he reflected, pointing to a double standard in how low-income and minority communities are policed versus more affluent communities.

For instance, in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester there were once four homicides in the span of a few days, he said, but when community leaders had a “meeting with Baltimore’s chief of patrols, and we brought that to light, and we kind of got brushed to the side.”

However, after three robberies at a subway station in a more affluent neighborhood, the police made it their “first priority” to respond with an extra presence there, he said. “This was the same district commander. The only difference was the first meeting was in Sandtown-Winchester and the second meeting was in Bolton Hill.”

“Those robberies carried more weight with our police department than the lives of four black men,” Kelly said. “The property of three white people took priority, and that’s the way the police department is structured.”

Policies are “geared to target minorities and these minority neighborhoods, and because you’re a minority, you’re black, you’re brown, you’re a suspect. There’s suspicion about what you’re doing there and what you’re up to.”

This leads to distrust of the police in which citizens “assume the worst,” he added.

“They question why a young black man runs when the police car pulls up; but you get slapped around enough times or you spend a couple of nights in Central Booking with no charge, and you know why people run,” he said.

Community leaders have been speaking up “that there are racist practices,” he said, “and we’ve gotten pushback for years saying that that’s not the case, and one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch.”

“And the DOJ report kind of validates what we’ve been saying for years and kind of brings in the concept that the whole barrel is rotten. So if you’ve got a rotten barrel, you could have 100 good apples. They’ll be rotten soon enough.”

Yet the Church has been doing more to further race relations in Baltimore, especially in the last year, he explained.

“I’m happy to see that the Church is getting more involved in this actual racial part of the conversation, and not just doing what we can for the community but now stepping up and actually doing things with the community.”

Instead of just sending materials to needy neighborhoods, the Church is now “part of the planning and the structuring” of events there.

The No Boundaries Coalition partnered with Pax Christi USA for an “annual public witness,” for instance. The start of racial justice circles has led to “conversations about privilege and race relations outside the police department,” Kelly said, and even talks of “how can people in the Church use their white privilege to assist lower-income communities in their fight for equality and racial justice.”

“We want to put that message out there that the Catholic Church is still the refuge for those in need,” he said.

The DOJ report is no “silver bullet,” he insisted, but rather “another tool for another opportunity to actually change the policies and address these systemic issues.”

“So it’s more from a Church and a Catholic perspective,” he said, “this is our voices actually being heard, and its validation. And that could be the first step towards change.”

Tags: Catholic News, Police, Race relations, Baltimore