Changing the Interaction Between Baltimore Police and City Residents – A Call for Funding and Expansion of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeepers

Whatever your perspective on the unrest in Baltimore and whatever you believe the root causes are, most can agree that something went wrong in the interaction between students and police last Monday. Here at Baltimore Mediation, we intensely focus on the interaction between people in conflict. We believe that if we can help change the interaction, fostering quality dialogue, breaking patterns of behavior and reactivity that escalate conflict, then people can cooperate to create lasting change. It involves using power in ways that are very different than the traditional methods of armed law enforcement.

The situation leading to Monday’s riots provides a recipe for violent conflict. Here are the ingredients. Over the prior weekend, angry protesters had destroyed police cars and the community had merely been spectators to the violence, judging it to be a minor bubbling over of emotion associated with what otherwise had been peaceful protests. City leadership had given vaguely permissive messages to potentially violent protesters, leading many to believe that violence might be tolerated. Flyers were disseminated through schools referencing “The Purge” – a film depicting a sanctioned 12-hour day where all crime is legalized. The flyers encouraged students to conduct a purge of their own to protest police brutality against Freddie Gray. Instead of keeping students in school until the perceived threat was over, schools released students to encounter Baltimore City police assembled to meet the expected disturbance at Mondawmin Mall, a place where thousands of students pass through every day for transportation on City buses and trains. Students, incited by the Purge flyer and angry over the death of Freddie Gray, came face to face with armed police, the object of their anger. Police were dressed in uniform, arrayed in formation and ready to meet attackers, but not empowered to use force to repel an assault.

Suffice it to say, these are the conditions for a serious crisis. And we all with great sorrow witnessed what happened next. What could have prevented this crisis? Some might say that the police should have been empowered immediately to use all force necessary to quell any disturbance. We would ask – Would an immediate aggressive use of force have done anything to improve relations between the community and the police? Clearly, in this scenario police were unsuited to intervene because they were the perceived enemy and their presence only incited the rioters. However, even if this situation did not involve community rage directed at the police, we would still argue that police action is not the answer.

Here is an alternative. Maybe, in dealing with widespread despair and the anger and crime that it produces, police can’t be the first responders and also are not the right people to intervene generally. Instead, consider how the response might have been different if students, upon gathering at Mondawmin, were met with respected, unarmed, community members ready to engage with them, hear their concerns, and urge them to use nonviolent means to effect change.

After the unrest was over, Captain Richard Gibson from the Northern District wrote an e-mail to fellow community members about the police’s response. He reflected about the importance of community involvement saying: “My good friend Councilman Bill Henry set up a peaceful gathering at the Belvedere Shopping Center. There was an INCREDIBLE turnout by members of the York Road Partnership. Because of this show of solidarity, no acts of looting occurred. A valuable lesson was learned for me – the deterrent of the community appeared to be greater than the deterrent of law enforcement.” He elaborated on this sentiment before signing off, stating, “Community involvement and cooperation is critical. Now that I see the practical application I realize how important it is. It is no longer rhetoric.”

We agree with Captain Gibson and believe he is right on with his observation. Intervention by unarmed, well-organized, well-trained, community members is a better response. You might think it is crazy to send civilian peacekeepers into harms way. But already there are nonviolent civilian groups working in Baltimore City, risking their lives, and jumping into the middle of conflict in some of Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods – with great results. Baltimore just needs more of these brave people and they need funding to get to a scale where they can make a bigger difference.

Consider the work of Safe Streets Baltimore, a community-based organization dedicated to stopping gun violence in Baltimore. Safe Streets members canvass the neighborhood, and outreach teams connect with high-risk youth and young adults. They work primarily during evenings and weekends when threats of violence are high. Although their numbers relatively small (about 25 members) they have a large impact. When the unrest began, police called them in, and the Park Heights neighborhood did not experience any property destruction. Their nonviolent message was diluted however because of the increased military presence in their neighborhood. When the National Guard came in, Safe Streets Director James Timpson said, “We’re trying to keep guns out of the hood. Now this kind of glamorizes them.” Safe Streets, with proper funding and manpower, can keep its community safer than police or armed guards can.

Another example is the 300 Men March community organization, also dedicated to stopping gun violence. The 300 Men March aims to redefine masculinity – stating that it is man’s duty to protect his community, to get guns of the street, and to engage in nonviolent means to create change. Since they began two years ago, they have approximately 50 members. They aim to have 300 men on the street corners of Baltimore every Friday night. Read more about the 300 Men March on their website

We as members of the Baltimore community at Baltimore Mediation urge our city to be creative about how we engage. We can’t wait until our communities devolve into chaos. We can’t rely on the National Guard. There is reservoir of good will in our community, and we need to use it early and often. Police are not the only ‘resources’ we have for keeping peace in the CIty. If what Captain Richard Gibson says is correct, that unarmed civilian groups are more effective in dealing with community issues in the City than law enforcement is, then we need to expand and fund unarmed nonviolent citizen peacekeepers like Safe Streets and 300 Men March and make them an instrumental and viable alternative for insuring community health and safety.