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The Long Fuse Behind the Violence in Baltimore

The special distrust between Baltimore residents and police goes way back.

Baltimore police officers push back demonstrators after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

After two weeks of high tensions and mostly peaceful demonstrations in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, violence beset Baltimore on Monday afternoon and fanned through the city overnight. In the bright light of morning, answers may not be immediate, but longterm and systemic, rooted in the special distrust between Baltimore residents and police.

Last night, clashes with police and looting continued after dark, as angry crowds set fire to cars in the streets and in several establishments in West Baltimore. At least 15 civilians and 15 police officers were injured. The Baltimore school district canceled classes on Tuesday, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced a weeklong citywide curfew, starting Tuesday night.

A man carries items from a store as police vehicles burn, Monday, April 27, 2015, after the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

From the start, a high-school flier calling for a "purge" on Monday after school sounded too neat as the spark for the violence. Other cities have been gripped by this fear before. Rumors spread last year in Louisville, Jacksonville, Detroit, and Cleveland that high-school youths were set on fulfilling the criminal fantasies of the 2013 horror film The Purge, but nothing ever came of those panics.

Late Monday morning, Baltimore police issued a warning that law enforcement had received a credible threat that area gangs were uniting under an explicit goal to "take out" police officers. The source of this information is unclear. Members of the Black Guerrilla Family, Bloods, and Crips gangs told reporters that they had called a truce, but not to harm police.

Regardless, on Monday afternoon, police met high-school students in a heightened alert state, carrying shields and wearing armor. Students assembled at 3 p.m. near Mondawmin Mall, which The Baltimore Sun describes as a transportation hub for area students. A Facebook note written by a woman who described herself as a Baltimore teacher and shared widely Monday described an after-school scene that turned chaotic, with police stopping and unloading buses of students.

Whatever the initial spark for the violence on Monday afternoon, the fuse was years, decades really, in the making. While police and residents in Baltimore are not always clashing in the streets, they have been in constant contact.

A police officer walks by a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Police made more than 58,000 arrests in Baltimore City in 2012. According to the state of Maryland's Uniform Crime Report, there were more than 62,000 arrests the year before that. It's an arrest rate that represents about one-tenth of the city's population. While that doesn't mean that one in 10 residents was arrested, it is a remarkably high number.

In previous years, the rate of arrests was even higher. The high-water mark may have come in 2005, when Baltimore police made more than 100,000 arrests—so many, The Baltimore Sun reports, that many had to be released before they could be charged.

A 2010 report from the Justice Policy Institute notes that the unique structure of Baltimore's city jail system exacerbates the frequent interaction between police and residents. Baltimore is home to one of the 20 largest jails in the nation, and the city boasts the dubious distinction of holding the largest percentage of its population in jail relative to the rest.

Unlike those municipalities, however, Baltimore city does not operate the jail. The state of Maryland does:

Baltimore’s criminal justice system and jail are structured differently than a typical county or city jail. Unlike other localities, the state of Maryland funds and operates the pretrial detention facilities in Baltimore, including the Baltimore jail. For this reason, initiatives that have worked in other jurisdictions to reduce the number of people in their jails may not be as effective in Baltimore. While counties and cities that pay for their own detention facilities have a financial incentive to limit the number of people in their jails, Baltimore City does not, and residents all over the state of Maryland pay for the often overcrowded facility at a cost of around $150 million a year.

According to that analysis, most people who are jailed in Baltimore are arrested for nonviolent and drug charges. And there are a lot of these. Between 2001 and 2010, the city of Baltimore had one of the highest arrest rates for marijuana possession of any city in the nation. According to the ACLU, black Baltimore city residents were nearly 6 times more likely to be arrested on pot charges than whites.

A six-month investigation conducted by The Baltimore Sun last year weighed the constant contact between law enforcement and the community in terms of police use of force. The report found that the city has paid out some $5.7 million in settlements related to more than 100 cases of police brutality and civil-rights violations in just the past four years. (The city spent another $5.8 million in legal fees defending police against the claims.)

Even in an era of falling crime rates, the city has maintained high rates of arrest and pretrial incarceration—at huge costs. In Baltimore, it is still an era of distrust.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.