A Plan to Avoid More Riots in Baltimore

A public health professor makes the case that upcoming trials connected to Freddie Gray’s death ought to be treated as a potential mental health crisis.

Image REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Baltimore Police Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell (center) talks to citizens on the streets of the Penn North section of Baltimore December 16, 2015. (REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

Since the riots that broke out there last spring, Baltimore’s reputation has been defined, in many corners, by its impoverished communities and the roles police have played in dealing with the people who live in them. So it was with a great deal of relief that the mistrial declared in December in the case of Baltimore police officer William Porter, who’d been charged for his role in Freddie Gray’s death, did not end in the kind of rioting seen during the “Baltimore Uprising.”

But of course the problems undergirding last spring’s riots—a lack of living-wage employment, blighted properties, a lack of affordable housing and reliable public transit—are nowhere close to resolution. And there are still at least six more trials connected to Gray’s killing yet to come, one for each of the police officers implicated in his death. Any one of these, Baltimore leaders fear, could lead to another flare up.

Which is why Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University’s School of Community Health & Policy, is suggesting that the city take proactive steps to deal with the pain and suffering in distressed communities as the police trials continue. This week he released the Baltimore City Verdict Preparedness Plan,” which focuses on dispatching mental health counselors instead of police in advance of upcoming court rulings.

“From a public health perspective, the goal is prevention instead of reaction,” reads Brown’s report. “Instead of waiting while anxiety and traumatic stress rises, the guiding principle in public health is to prevent it from taking place altogether.”

The report leans heavily on recommendations from medical groups such as the National Association of County & City Health Officials, which recently released a statement encouraging “local health departments to frame the prevalence of discriminatory police violence and the threat of violence in all communities as a public health issue associated with a legacy of social, economic, and racial injustice.”

In the Baltimore context, Brown writes that violence stems from the “historical trauma” of over a hundred years of systemic racism and displacement faced by African Americans. Such trauma can be triggered by trial verdicts that appear to undermine police accountability and black lives. So Brown calls for the creation of 100 “trauma alleviation and assistance teams,” or “A-Teams,” consisting of community health workers with specialized training in trauma. They would be sent out on “street-walking, door-knocking” missions to help prepare residents for the disappointment or despair that may arise from verdicts in upcoming cases connected to Freddie Gray’s death.

“It behooves us not to act like [the city of Baltimore] is back to normal,” Brown tells Citylab. “These trials will be very triggering for a lot of people. So this kind of trauma alleviation on the front end would go a long way in reducing frustrations and anxieties.”

These A-Teams should be funded by the city or the state, says Brown, who suggests that Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s Project C.O.R.E. could be used to fund them. In June 2015, Brown helped lead a study called the #BaltimoreUprising Community Healing Research Project, which found that 21 percent of residents living along the main corridors where riots happened had post-traumatic stress disorder. The A-Teams, if created, would be able to target areas like this in hopes of managing the city’s most socially and emotionally vulnerable residents. Reads the report:

Our proposed strategy could serve as a direct line of services to the people that most need it and in a way that they can access care when they need it. This is a fundamental step towards preparing if not mitigating future similar events; because part of the most important aspects related to this A-Team effort would be meeting the needs of people with anxiety, mental illness, PTSD, race-based trauma, or racial battle fatigue.

Still, Brown cautions that such teams could only mitigate so much without major structural reforms at the city level. The report additionally calls for “macro-level transformations” over the long-term that include:

  • Having the Baltimore police department apologize for past violence and brutality and instituting tougher punishment for cops who take suspects on “rough rides” or fail to detain suspects properly without harming them. (The police implicated in Gray’s death are accused of both of these violations.)
  • Activating the Baltimore City Health Department to start tracking all instances of police violence, killings and instances where cops neglect to offer medical assistance to detained suspects.
  • The city declaring a housing emergency and suspending all evictions, mortgage foreclosures and utility shutoffs until the emergency declaration is lifted.

Brown links those reforms in the report to a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr., gave to the American Psychological Association in 1967. Speaking before the APA’s annual convention in D.C., King said that certain “constructive elements” at the time—presumably the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act—had “misled” him, and referred to a “special form of violence” that’s “intended to shock the white community.”

King further explained to the APA audience:

When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.

Brown, a Baltimore resident, argues that King’s words still ring true today, that the raw feelings behind them lurk “right beneath the surface,” in distressed neighborhoods across his city.  

“It’s not just from the [cops implicated in Freddie Gray’s death] trials,” says Brown. “It’s multiple cases, like the Cleveland police officers let go for killing Tamir Rice. We’re still at a place where these feelings could quickly resurface if another cop goes free, like, ‘Here we go again, I’m sick, I’m tired, and I don’t want this to happen ever again.’”

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