BALTIMORE—Antoinette Perrine has barricaded her front door since her brother was killed three weeks ago on a basketball court near her home in the Harlem Park neighborhood of West Baltimore. She already has iron bars outside her windows and added metal slabs on the inside to deflect the gunfire.
“I’m afraid to go outside,” said Perrine, 47. “It’s so bad, people are afraid to let their kids outside. People wake up with shots through their windows. Police used to sit on every corner, on the top of the block. These days? They’re nowhere.”
Perrine’s brother is one of 36 people killed in Baltimore so far this month, already the highest homicide count for May since 1999. But while homicides are spiking, arrests have plunged more than 50 percent compared to last year.
The drop in arrests followed the death of Freddie Gray from injuries he suffered in police custody. Gray’s death sparked protests against the police and some rioting, and led to the indictment of six officers.
Now West Baltimore residents worry they’ve been abandoned by the officers they once accused of harassing them. In recent weeks, some neighborhoods have become like the Wild West without a lawman around, residents said.
“Before it was over-policing. Now there’s no police,” said Donnail “Dreads” Lee, 34, who lives in the Gilmor Homes, the public housing complex where Gray, 25, was arrested.
“I haven’t seen the police since the riots,” Lee said. “People feel as though they can do things and get away with it. I see people walking with guns almost every single day, because they know the police aren’t pulling them up like they used to.”
Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said last week his officers “are not holding back” from policing tough neighborhoods, but they are encountering dangerous hostility in the Western District.
“Our officers tell me that when officers pull up, they have 30 to 50 people surrounding them at any time,” Batts said.
At a City Council meeting Wednesday, Batts said officers have expressed concern they could be arrested for making mistakes.
“What is happening, there is a lot of levels of confusion in the police organization. There are people who have pain, there are people who are hurt, there are people who are frustrated, there are people who are angry,” Batts said. “There are people, and they’ve said this to me, ‘If I get out of my car and make a stop for a reasonable suspicion that leads to probable cause but I make a mistake on it, will I be arrested?’ They pull up to a scene and another officer has done something that they don’t know, it may be illegal, will they be arrested for it? Those are things they are asking.”
Protesters said Gray’s death is emblematic of a pattern of police violence and brutality against impoverished African-Americans in Baltimore. In October, Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake invited the U.S. Justice Department to participate in a collaborative review of the police department’s policies.
The fallout from Gray’s death prompted the mayor to ask U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch for a full-fledged probe into whether the department employs discriminatory policing, excessive force and unconstitutional searches and arrests.
Baltimore was seeing a slight rise in homicides this year even before Gray’s death April 19. But the 36 homicides so far in May is a major spike, after 22 in April, 15 in March, 13 in February and 23 in January.
Ten of May’s homicides happened in the Western District, which has had as many homicides in the first five months of this year as it did all of last year.
Non-fatal shootings are spiking as well. So far in May there have been 91 — 58 of them in the Western District.
And the arrest rate has plummeted.
The statistics showed that even before Gray’s death, police were making between 25 and 28 percent fewer arrests each month than they made in the same month last year. But in May arrests declined far more sharply.
So far this month, arrests are down roughly 56 percent. Police booked just 1,045 people in the first 19 days of May, an average of 55 a day. In the same time period last year, police arrested 2,396 people, an average of 126 a day.
In fact, police did not make any arrests in the triple digits between April 22 and May 19, except on two occasions. On April 27, when protests gave way to rioting, police arrested 246 people. On May 2, the last day of a city-wide curfew, police booked 140 people.
At a news conference Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake said there were “a lot of reasons why we’re having a surge in violence.”
“Other cities that have experienced police officers accused or indicted of crimes, there’s a lot of distrust and a community breakdown,” Rawlings-Blake said. “The result is routinely increased violence.”
Rawlings-Blake said her office is “examining” the relationship between the homicide spike and the dwindling arrest rate.
“It’s clear that the relationship between the commissioner and the rank-and-file is strained,” she said. “He’s working very hard to repair that relationship.”
Emergency response specialist Michael Greenberger cautions against blaming the police for the violence. The founder and director of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, he said it’s more likely a response to Gray’s death and the rioting.
“We went through a period of such intense anger that the murder rate got out of control. I think it’s been really hard for the police to keep on top of that,” he said.
Lee disagrees. He says rival gang members are taking advantage of the police reticence to settle scores.
“There was a shooting down the street, and the man was standing in the middle of the street with a gun, just shooting,” Lee added. “Usually, you can’t walk up and down the street drinking or smoking weed.
Now, people are everywhere smoking weed, and police just ride by, look at you, and keep going. There used to be police on every corner. I don’t think they’ll be back this summer.”
Batts acknowledged that “the service we’re giving is off-target with the community as a whole” and he promised to pay special attention to the Western District.
Veronica Edmonds, a 26-year-old mother of seven in the Gilmor Homes, said she wishes the police would return and focus on violent crime rather than minor drug offenses.
“If they focused more on criminals and left the petty stuff alone, the community would have more respect for police officers,” she said.