Home Community policing Baltimore Riots and the True Costs of Poor Community Relations

Baltimore Riots and the True Costs of Poor Community Relations


By Stephanie M. Hunziker, PhD, criminal justice faculty at American Military University

No one can condone the violent actions and civil unrest happening in Baltimore, which has forced the city to activate the National Guard. The death of Freddie Gray—who appears to have died from a broken neck that was sustained while in police custody—has angered citizens because it represents the city’s history of poor police-community relations. Baltimore is just the most current example of similar anger being felt and expressed in cities across the country.

Riot PoliceMany people watching the turmoil in Baltimore may be in disbelief that these citizens (largely young kids) are literally burning down their own community. To many of us, this scenario just doesn’t make sense. Unfortunately, the real issues in Baltimore are being overlooked because all the public can see is the violence and rage happening on the streets. This rage is being directed at the local and state agencies that are supposed to protect and serve its citizens.

[Related article: How to Manage Stress Levels During Lawlessness and Mob Situations]

The Real Story Behind the Violence
This anger has been building for many years in Baltimore. There are known issues in the Baltimore Police Department. In October 2014, the U.S. Justice Department began its own investigation of the department, months before the Freddie Gray incident.

In September 2014, Mark Puente wrote an in-depth article in The Sun about police brutality. In this article, he noted that between January 2011 and fall 2014 there were more than 100 judgements and settlements in favor of plaintiffs who had been subjected to undue force by the Baltimore police. The city paid almost $6 million to victims in cases involving excessive force by police.

The True Costs to the Community
The costs to the city are much greater than any monetary figure. As a result of the use of excessive force, citizens distrust the police. They are frustrated that, instead of being protected by the police, they may become the victims. The anger and frustration with the law enforcement community has now bubbled to the surface and is in the public eye for all to see. These are not new lessons. The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1968 noted that “a community’s attitude toward the police is influenced most by the actions of individual officers on the streets” (p. 262).

[Related article: Need for Strong Community Relations Among the Lessons of Ferguson]

Recovery Efforts
In this situation, it can be very hard for citizens to keep in mind that the vast majority of police officers are honest, ethical, and hard-working. It only takes a few officers abusing their power and violating the rights of citizens to make all law enforcement seem corrupt. What did Freddie Gray do when he saw police officers looking at him? He ran. Was it due to his numerous prior arrests for drugs and other offenses? Was he afraid? We will never know the answer as to why he ran.

[Related article: Use of Deadly Force on Fleeing Criminals]

The systemic issues and root causes do not condone the violence and rioting happening right now in the streets of Baltimore. It is plain wrong.

However, while many of the citizens of Baltimore are engaged in peaceful protest, others are acting out and exploiting an opportunity. The good citizens of Baltimore feel helpless and voiceless while a lawless element captures the media’s attention. While there is no doubt that this violence must be quelled, the law enforcement community must also recognize that there is hard work ahead to re-build community relations and restore faith in their officers.

[Related article: Facebook: A Tool Police to Restore Community Policing]

Stephanie HunzikerAbout the Author: Dr. Stephanie M. Hunziker has been working in the criminal justice field for the past 15 years and has been teaching courses in criminal justice and law for more than a decade. She teaches courses in policing, courts, the administration of justice, juvenile justice, the future of criminal justice, research methods, and criminal justice policy.


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  1. Hello Dr. Hunziker,

    I agree in part with your article in which you speak about poor community-police relationships not just in Baltimore but across America. However I do not believe the Baltimore riots are a result of this poor relationship stemming from years of excessive force complaints. Here is why:

    The Baltimore riots (much like the Ferguson riots) are the result of people making many assumptions about police misconduct that are not based on many facts. We assume that Gray’s injuries were sustained while in police custody however the video evidence shows that Gray appeared to be in severe pain before being placed in the van. Even the person filming the arrest can be heard saying words to the effect of “You taze him and wonder why he can’t use his legs.” (It should be noted that police never fired there taser at Gray). The police report indicates that “no force” was used during the arrest of Gray other than restraint techniques employed to control Gray until he was handcuffed (npr.com news article). It was at this time Gray began to scream, requesting an inhaler and medical treatment. Is it possible Gray aggravated a previous injury while running from the police? Aggravating previous injuries is common thing especially if you are unaware that you sustained them in the first place. I think it’s very possible.

    While in the police van we know that Gray was able to talk and scream and act in a fashion that constituted the necessity of the driver of the police van to stop, open the back of the van and place Gray into leg irons because he was acting irate (npr.com news article). During this time Gray was asking for a medic but no medic was summoned to the scene. Another prisoner in the van at the time reportedly said it sounded as if Gray was intentionally hurting himself although, admittedly, there is dispute as to the accuracy of his statement. Some alleged that it was at this point Gray was beaten by the police however these claims were refuted by the autopsy report (npr.com).

    We assume rioters are lashing out against the police due to systematic abuse of black suspects at the hands of white officers. If this is the case, what are the rioters basing this on? Just like there is no evidence to suggest that the race of Michael Brown was a factor in his arrest in Ferguson, there is absolutely no indication that race played a part in the arrest of Gray. However there is more evidence (based on Gray’s lengthily arrest record) to argue that Gray was a pain in the ass to the community and ran from the police (for whatever reason we may never know) prompting a foot chase and arrest. The Baltimore riots could have been avoided if the news media, politicians and so called black leaders would have waited until the facts of the case were revealed before making baseless assumptions knowing they could incite violence. These people are experts at making others perceive that there is a systemic use of force problem in America’s police departments with racial undertones. This problem (if it even exists) is not nearly as inflated as the media and so called black leaders would like us to believe.

    John Eisenhart
    Masters Homeland Security AMU


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