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Staggering arrest rates strain Baltimore community relations with police

All week long, many young people from the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and other inner city Baltimore communities have been protesting the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police. Natasha Pratt-Harris, an associate professor of criminal justice and sociology at Morgan State University in Baltimore, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss relations with police.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    Of course, all week long, we've seen many young people from Sandtown-Winchester, other inner city Baltimore communities, along with many other concerned citizens, protesting the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police.

    For a look at relations with the police, we are joined now by Natasha Pratt-Harris, a PhD, and associate professor of criminal justice and sociology at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

    So, Professor, I want to play you a clip we came across this week. It's of a young man talking about how he believes police treat men of color as suspects.

    (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

  • UNIDENTIFIED MALE:

    It hurts. It really hurts. You know, when you come out in the morning and you just can't come out, take deep breath and take a walk.

    You can't even take a walk, because when you do, half of the times they are staring at you, they are looking at you. You got something planned in their minds.

    (END VIDEO CLIP)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is that a fair description about what's happening?

  • NATASHA PRATT-HARRIS, MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY:

    I would just say he's speaking his truth.

    I actually grew up in the city of Baltimore, attended public schools. I actually teach in the city of Baltimore at Morgan State University.

    I have not met a man of color in this city who spent any significant time in the city who hasn't had that experience, an experience that was in some ways negative, some negative encounter.

    So, what he said does not surprise me. I will say that, you know, we don't necessarily hear voices like his sharing what's happened. So, it's without a doubt a fair description.

    One of the things that I want to make certain is clear, however, is that is not the only experience for residents of the city when it comes to law enforcement.

    There are quite a few positive encounters, but those negative ones outweigh the positive, similar to this past week. We've seen the negative depictions of persons who were engaged in violent criminal acts and those negative things outweighed the very positive things that happened.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In fact, young men are arrested at a much higher rate than the national average. Actually, more than five times as often.

    So, how do community relations, police relations suffer, or how are they affected by this?

  • NATASHA PRATT-HARRIS:

    I will kind of speak to why that's happening. There's this debate that the rationale behind that number is related to the incidences of violence or the rate by which persons are engaging criminally.

    So, the one side of the argument is if people are engaging criminally, they're going to be detained. They're going to be arrested by law enforcement.

    But the other argument is that they had more contact with the police. That means that police are in communities that are impoverished.

    They are actually identifying individuals as engaging criminally.

    So, they're going to — if there's more contact with law enforcement, there's more likelihood of encounter, which lends itself to detainment and then later incarceration.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. So, there are going to be people who say, look, the homicide rate in Sandtown-Winchester is so many times the national average.

    Don't the people living in this community deserve a police presence to protect themselves?

    I mean, we've had a doctor on who talked about how most kids there witness a couple of traumatic events in their lifetime, which is kind of something the rest of the country doesn't even connect with.

  • NATASHA PRATT-HARRIS:

    I understand, and I agree that law enforcement are responsible for policing, but law enforcement doesn't only have to engage in the traditional sense of policing.

    There's such a thing as community engagement, and the Baltimore City police has done a fantastic job historically in engaging with the community. And we are familiar with the police athletic leagues where they engage. They had a presence.

    If you are actually in the presence and engaged with members of the community, that's another way to police because you get a sense of who's who and who's engaged in what activity, so you can either quell or just eliminate the possibility of some criminal activity engaging.

    At the present time, what we see is a reactory type of policing instead of prevention. We're responding — I argue — to our fears.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When we think about policy, for years under former Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the city instituted broken window-style, zero tolerance policing.

    And they'll say crime rates did decline, like they did in many big cities, including New York, during the aughts.

    What are the ripple effects of that? Why didn't those policies work or what are the policies that should be implemented?

  • NATASHA PRATT-HARRIS:

    Well, those particular policies I would argue were — they were effective in reducing crime — or they may have been effective.

    What we know is that there were still pains and troubles and problems in those very communities.

    There were resources and programs that were cut after — or during the O'Malley administration, which in fact can speak to the very problems that we see today.

    There's just some simple things that we can do to address community police relations. It begins with having a conversation.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. Natasha Pratt-Harris, an associate professor of criminal justice and sociology at Morgan State University in Baltimore — thanks so much.

  • NATASHA PRATT-HARRIS:

    Thank you for having me.

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