It was 1997 when I spent an evening with an officer on the streets of Baltimore, in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city. Drugs, crime, poverty; it was that kind of neighborhood. Years later I would see images of that night, remembering what I saw. And, with the riots in the Upton section of Baltimore this year, just blocks away, the images appear once again.
It was a little after 4pm and the next shift of officers were getting into their cars and pulling out into the streets. The Captain or Sergeant, I’m not sure which, comes up to the window of the car and asks the officer, “You think she needs a vest?” He answers, “Nah, it’ll be alright.”
I see James in another car pulling away. I had no idea what I was about to see for this ride-along I agreed to go on – for a Marketing Strategy class of all things. This was research for my grad school class at Johns Hopkins University. The entire semester was devoted to the Baltimore Police Department, studying “community policing” and developing a plan to improve the relations between the police and citizens. Easier said than done.
Our class was divided into small teams with each being assigned a particular neighborhood of Baltimore. Our group was assigned Park Heights, one of the worst sections of the city known for high crime, drug activity, gangs and homicides. James and I were the only two members of our team, and I believe of the whole class, willing to do a ride-along.
Just a few minutes into it, sounds come across the radio and the officer responds. I can’t remember the officer’s first name, but I remember his last name being Valencia. “We got a sick call,” he says. I wasn’t even sure what that meant. The lights go on and our pace picks up while moving through some narrow streets that look very different than what I’m used to. I was a Potomac girl, after all, from the affluent suburbs of D.C. This place was one hour and a world away from where I grew up; the kind of place I only saw on TV or in the movies.
We pull up to a small, red brick duplex. “Follow me, but just don’t touch anything and don’t lean on any walls,” he tells me. There was a woman sitting on the porch, rocking back and forth with her hands on her face, and crying.
My heart started to beat faster and something began to resonate with me.
We walk in, another family member, a son maybe, points upstairs. I’m trailing right behind the cop as we walk up the steps, turn right and enter a bedroom where an older man is lying in bed, taking long, slow gasps, what looked like his last breaths. The man was dying. Some words were exchanged between the officer and family. A little while later, an ambulance pulls up and paramedics are walking in as we walk out.
As we pull away, my heart is beating fast and I feel queasy. “I don’t think I can do this,” I reluctantly tell the officer. But, he reassures me, “Ah, that’s nothing, that was just a sick call. You’ll be fine.”
How could this get better?
My father had passed away two years before, and I think that’s why I was so shaken – that, and a form of culture shock that hit me all in a few minutes.
I took a deep breath and hoped the feeling would go away.
Fighting Crime in the Inner City
There we were driving the streets of Park Heights. Row houses, dirty alleyways with rats running in and out of trash piles. This was the inner city. Park Heights was divided into an upper and lower section; we were in the lower section, the high poverty, high crime rate district.
Officer Valencia and I were close in age, mid-twenties, and I remember having a friendly conversation as we drove around. I started to calm down and the sick feeling began to fade. The plan was to ride around for a couple of hours and then he would drop me back off at the station.
What I remember was a series of events…
He gets a call about someone intoxicated in the street. When we find this person, the officer recognizes him and says he had just gotten out of jail. We pull up to this man so he was on my side of the car. My window starts to roll down and I begin to shift in my seat. I see the man walking closer to me and he’s eyeing both of us in the car. I plead with a half smile to my nice cop, “Oh, please don’t, please don’t.” He laughs, “Don’t worry.” He spins the car around, stops and gets out. I watched the two conversing, the man shrugged a few times. Another officer pulled up as well and ended up putting him in his car; I think to drive him home.
Then I hear a woman say loudly, “Thank you. Thank you for doing something about him.” She walks up to the officer stressing a point about safety of the kids. She was holding a small child’s hand, a boy about three standing quietly with big, curious eyes as he watched his mom and this policeman.
I started to wonder as I looked at this adorable, innocent looking child. What was it like for these kids in this neighborhood? How were they going to grow up? Would they leave, or would they stay and raise their own kids here? This is all they knew. I wondered if one of these kids was going to be the one to leave, go to college, be that success story that begins with, “We grew up poor in the inner city of Baltimore, it was bad, there were drugs and murders….”
We come across a group of young men huddled together. When they see the patrol car, the group scatters. Valenica points to the one guy walking away by himself – the dealer. The rest walk or jog away trying to look like they weren’t up to anything. He gets out and talks with a few of them. They seem to know each other and I sensed a respect for this officer. When he got back in the car, Valencia tells me about these guys, the ones he often sees and warns to stay out of trouble. He adds, “The better they know you, the more they respect you; it’s the new guy (the rookie cop) that has it rough.”
We drive pass an intersection and Officer Valencia points to the spot where a teenager was killed just the night before during an argument over a pair of Nike shoes.
A call comes in and Valencia’s foot hits the floor and we’re off speeding through the city streets. There was a foot chase in progress. When we catch up to the other officers, they had caught the guy who was now sitting on a curb in handcuffs with a stern look on his face. I hear one of the officers say loudly, “You’re not going to be feeling too well here in a few minutes.” An ambulance had been called. This man had been carrying crack cocaine, and from what I remember being told, it was in two glass tubes hidden in his mouth, and while on the run he chewed them up and swallowed it.
Meanwhile, a woman is standing in the middle of the street yelling and pointing and cussing at the police, pissed off because her boyfriend is in handcuffs. I remember the officers standing there straight-faced saying they’re doing what needed to be done.
The sun was going down. We were hungry so we stopped at Burger King. After a quick bite, as we’re pulling out and I’m trying to get situated in my seat, the top pops off my drink and spills all over the floorboard. I felt so bad. He says, “Ah, no bid deal. Look, oops….” He proceeds to pour out some of his drink on the floor and we laugh about it – another attempt to humor me. I’m sure the floors had seen worse.
We were passing by a liquor store when we stop across the street and watch. It was a common place for drugs and he looks for any suspicious activity.
It’s now dark and the air is getting cooler.
Another call comes in. This time I’m walking with him into a row house, he warns again don’t touch anything or lean up against anything. A young mother is with her small children and says she heard gunshots. He tells me to wait there while he pulled out his flashlight and went out the back door. There I was standing in the hallway of this house, the mother looks at me for a brief second then turns and watches the back door. I could not have felt more out of place. He comes back and says he doesn’t see or hear anything, but tells the woman to call if she hears it again.
I asked him if he ever pulls anyone over just for a traffic violation. “Sure, let’s look for one.” Sure enough, a car makes a turn with no signal and as the traffic light turns red. A routine stop, he gives them a warning. Then he points up ahead. “You see that?” He’s pointing to a car moving slowly as if they’re trying to find the right street. “What,” I ask. “Two white people in the car. There’s only one reason why white people would be driving around here – drugs.”
He stops them, I believe after watching for a reason that warranted pulling them over. He advised them to leave the neighborhood.
Then there was the raid. This time he told me, “Stay in the car. This can get dangerous, someone’s liable to shoot.” I watched him join a group of officers that broke through the door of a house. I sat there waiting, wondering what was happening inside. I couldn’t see anything. Valencia comes back and says the guy they were looking for jumped out a back window. “The poor Grandmother, thought we were going to have to call an ambulance for her,” he tells me. When we pulled away I caught a glimpse inside the house through the front door that was still open. Under the kitchen light, I see an elderly woman in a flower-print dress, leaning over the back of the chair looking ill.
I think the fact that I was in the car kept this officer from any full pursuits. There seemed to be enough officers handling the calls. And, I was just fine with that.
The Upper Side
We head towards the upper side where by just a matter of crossing over one street the neighborhood suddenly changed. It was nicer, with bigger homes, cleaner, and I learned was a large Jewish population.
I had totally forgotten about James. Valencia makes a call to the officer he had been riding with. They had made an arrest and were stuck at the station doing paperwork. It sounded like James was ok and Valencia asks if I wanted to keep going. At his point, I was actually enjoying it.
I remember driving around a park area, it was very dark and the city lights were behind us. We come across a parked car he thinks is suspicious. He approaches the car and two men and a woman get out. As I’m watching, I’m guessing she’s a prostitute. I remember her as short, wearing a tight top and very short skirt, her hair was short and curly, looked like it was dyed orange. The look on her face was sheer worry. “I wasn’t doing anything,” she kept repeating. Valenicia didn’t buy it. They exchanged words and he made them leave, and the last thing I heard as he’s turning back towards the patrol car, “And, Miss, you need a bath.”
Before I knew it, it was getting close to midnight. Wherever we ended up, somehow this officer questioned how to get back. So, he pulled out a map (Pre-smart phones days). I laughed and couldn’t believe he was looking at a map. We find our way back at precisely 12 Midnight.
I caught up with James in the parking lot, we thanked the officers and that was it. The night was done.
As we we’re driving away within a few minutes the landscape changes; it felt like we were driving out of a dark forest.
18 Years Later
I’m writing this because nearly 18 years later these images are still in my head, especially after watching riots break out in Baltimore.
This one night I describe is simply what I still remember, what I saw, what I felt and thought. I really can’t believe I was there in the first place, in that neighborhood and walking into those homes. I was clearly out of place. Anything could have happened.
As I search online to see the state of these neighborhoods now, Wikepedia tells me pretty much the same thing: the past few decades Lower Park Heights has been known to be the highest per capita crime area of the city according to the Baltimore Police Department, and factors contributing to that include rival gangs, drug locations, and ethnic diversity.
Then I find evidence of revitalization including an organization called Park Heights Renaissance; and now this historic neighborhood is described as having “charming” row houses with big front porches and a commitment to shaping a better future. Park Heights appears to be in the throws of urban renewal, with less dividing lines and a healthier diverse culture. As the Baltimore Sun reports, “Park Heights has risen from the ashes of poverty and climbed the economic ladder.”
Take a look at the photo series from Baltimore Sun’s The Dark Room.
I don’t remember much about our final report for that class other then some recommendations that involved working with community leaders and organizations like the Northwest Citizens Patrol (my copy of our team’s report is on a floppy disc buried in a box somewhere). Community policing was more about improving relationships than just meeting quotas on tickets and arrests. I got a sense of that from the ride-along.
From watching the events this past year, as with any city, crime and heated protests still exist. But, Baltimore appears to be a community that finds a connection with one another and has the ability to keep moving forward.
That small child I saw is now a young adult. I wonder what he’s doing now.