Inside the mind of a black Baltimore cop

Story highlights

  • Black Baltimore cops open up about riots; they dispute the notion that cops often mistreat black suspects
  • They say racial bias exists among white and black officers
  • One cop says black residents turned against him

Baltimore (CNN)He stepped onto the streets this week in his blue Baltimore police uniform and noticed something was different.

African-American pedestrians shook their heads at him and frowned. Drivers slowed their cars when they spotted him and scowled. And when he joined a phalanx of white officers assembled for crowd control, he heard people yell:
Police ain't s***.
    There's more of us than you.
    This is our city. This is our corner.
    He is a black police officer who liked wearing his uniform in public because it inspired nods of respect. But this past week, something changed.
    "I felt funny in my uniform for the first time," he said. "People looked at me like I was crazy. I just kept it moving. But I was like, wow, this uniform had that much effect?"

    Caught in the middle

    When riots erupted in Baltimore after a young African-American man named Freddie Gray died in police custody, pundits and protesters flocked to the airwaves to offer their perspective. The voice of one group, though, has not been heard: What do Baltimore's black police officers who were raised in the city have to say about what's happened to their community?
    Two black officers from the city's Police Department decided to answer that question. Both men asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. One, who shared the story of getting hard stares in the streets, called himself "Marcus," the other "Kevin." Both were born in Baltimore, and between them, they have about 40 years on the force.
    They met me in West Baltimore near the flashpoint of the riots after another long day. Bulletproof vests bulged from under their uniforms, and a police helicopter circled overhead. Outside, police in riot gear leaned against cars as women and children walked by. The atmosphere was one of exhaustion: People and police were tired and anxious for life to return to normal.
    The two officers were calm and relaxed despite the recent chaos. They talked about the peculiar challenges of being a black police officer. They stood side-by-side with white officers, getting pummeled in the legs and groin with chunks of concrete during the riots. But they also talked about the people in the community who stood by them when they were growing up in the city.

    Rumors of resignations

    Throughout their careers, they've both had to navigate the tensions between their profession and their community. Marcus recalled an encounter he had in a courthouse with a black woman whose son was on trial for trying to murder him. She saw Marcus during a break and told him he was a traitor to his people. He said his response to her is what he's repeated many times in similar situations:
    "Don't you think I get tired of coming to work and all I'm arresting is black guys?"
    Both men said they were shocked by the riots. So were other police officers. They're hearing rumors that a lot of rookie and veteran cops are planning to quit because of the beatings they took during the riots. Some officers are still hospitalized and others required reconstructive surgery because of the injuries they suffered at the hands of rioters.
    Yet Marcus said he met some black residents who thanked him for stopping the looting and protecting the few stores they have in their community.
    "There are a lot of good people still in this city that we still have to look out for," Marcus said.
    Many people in the black community, though, suspect that there are plenty of bad cops in the Baltimore City Police Department.
    I asked them whether it was common for white officers to abuse black suspects by placing them in police vans for "rough rides " -- a maneuver in which suspects are bounced around like they're in a pinball machine. That's what many believe happened to Gray, 25.
    Gray was placed in a Baltimore city police van after being arrested. He died a week later from a spinal injury he received while in police custody. Six police officers -- three of them black -- were charged in Gray's death.
    Both Kevin and Marcus said "rough rides" are no longer common. Years ago, though, they were not unusual. Today, most cops -- black and white -- consider them wrong and stupid, they said.
    "When I first came on, that was prevalent," Kevin said. "Over time, the culture has changed tremendously. It's not accepted; it's not cool to do. You're under so much scrutiny. It's not worth our jobs. It's not worth going to jail because you beat somebody up because you're mad at them."
    Officers still beat black suspects in isolated cases, Marcus said, but it's not the norm. He said it usually takes place when rookie officers are eager to earn street nicknames such as "Robocob" and get picked for specialized police units.
    "They just want to fit in," Marcus said. "You may have certain [officers] who may not accept you because you won't do certain things. Like they go out and do some street rips, just grab a bunch of people off the streets, and you may be too passive for them. They're tossing people over and going through their pockets, but you ain't doing that kind of stuff. They may not want you in the squad because if something happens, they're not going to trust you."
    Most officers won't accept assaulting suspects because they're aware cell cameras are everywhere and don't want to risk losing their jobs, Marcus and Kevin said.
    Demonstrators rally in Baltimore to protest the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died while in police custody.
    Both also said that they've developed a reputation in the department for not tolerating the mistreatment of suspects because they consider it morally wrong. They might not witness some rough treatment of suspects because officers know not to do it around them.
    "If I'm out there with some guys I don't know and I'm working with, but I knew these guys who are trying to get a reputation -- there's no way that's going to happen while I'm standing there," Marcus said.
    The Baltimore Sun ran a series in 2014 that showed another side to the city's Police Department. It revealed that the city had paid about $5.7 million since 2011 to settle lawsuits claiming that police officers beat alleged suspects, most of whom were black.
    Marcus said he was stunned.
    "I was shocked by the amount that was paid out," he said. "That's money taken away from officers who are working. I didn't know. There's no telling how long that went on."
    Both men reserved judgment on the Freddie Gray case. They said the full facts haven't come out yet. But they've seen videos on YouTube and elsewhere of black men being brutalized by police. Kevin alluded to the video of a white police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, shooting Walter Scott, a fleeing black man, in the back after the officer pulled him over during a traffic stop.
    Kevin said such incidents don't anger him as a black man -- but do as a human being.
    "There's no justification for that, whether that guy was black or white. I'm angry as a human being. You don't do that to another person."

    What fuels racial bias among police

    Both men said racial bias exists in the Baltimore City Police Department. But it's not the atrocious, YouTube moments of racist police behavior. It's a casual contempt that some white and even some black officers have for poor black people. They find this bias to be the most corrosive.
    The problem, they say, is that so few Baltimore city police officers come from the city or live there. Most, regardless of race, come from surrounding counties, states and rural areas. All they know of Baltimore, they say, is the famous HBO series "The Wire," which portrays the city as a vicious criminal purgatory.
    Some of these officers act like they're reading from a script for "The Wire," both said. They will respond to a call in a poor black neighborhood and trash people's homes and break furniture while searching for drugs. They think everyone is like a character on "The Wire" who doesn't deserve respect. Apart from their police work, they've never been around blacks in the inner city.
    And that includes some black officers, Marcus said.
    "I've seen black officers from out of the state or surrounding counties, and their mind is made up: 'It's us against them,' '' Marcus said.
    The way some officers talk to black men in front of their families in poor neighborhoods is particularly galling, Marcus said. He said he's had to take officers aside and tell them to cool down.
    "You'll have someone like myself saying, 'You're coming in this house and telling a man to shut the hell up in front of his kids, and we're taking control of his house for a half hour," Marcus said. "When you leave, he still got to be the man of the house. You just took that away from him."
    He said he's worked with officers from rural areas who had never seen drug addicts before. They treat them like lepers. One asked him how he could even touch a junkie. He said he saw the effect drugs had on his family when the crack epidemic hit Baltimore in the 1980s, and he sees echoes of his family's struggle in the faces of addicts.
    Yet other officers who have never seen what drugs can do to people miss the humanity of some of the people they're supposed to protect and serve.
    "It's like you're not a human being to them," Marcus said. "You're a monster."

    Bridging the distance

    Few police officers have a passion for the job, Marcus said. Most of the officers he knows just want to "do their eight" -- an eight-hour shift -- and never come to the city at night or on the weekends. He does, because it helps him know what's bubbling beneath the surface.
    "What goes on during the day, something different is going on at night," Marcus said.
    As a way to bridge the distance between police and inner city Baltimore, Marcus endorses a tactic he's seen work here: foot patrols.
    The Police Department will dispatch foot patrols to a "hot spot" for a couple of weeks when something particularly bad happens, he said. But once things calm down, the patrol will end. If police officers were on regular foot patrols, people would eventually become more familiar with them and give them more information, he said. A neighborhood resident, for example, would feel more comfortable chatting with an officer in a crowded mall surrounded by other people than in more suspicious circumstances.
    "They'd rather do it out in the open than you coming to their door," Marcus said.

    Racial isolation on the job

    Both men say they have experienced racial isolation in their careers.
    "There's been times when I've turned down opportunities to go into specialized units," Kevin said. "I didn't go because I didn't want to be the only black guy in the unit."
    Yet both men said they have no intention of quitting the force. Marcus, in particular, grew animated when he talked about the pleasures of the job: getting letters from people he helped; having people he locked up thank him for treating them with respect; having citizens specifically request him for a call because they trusted him.
    Then there is the sheer challenge of police work. On his first week on the job, he said, he had to switch gears often to handle different situations.
    "I had to be nice. I had to be mean, confident -- every call is different," Marcus said. "I had to change into different personalities to accommodate all of these different things. I started liking it."
    Marcus grew up in one of the most notorious communities in the inner city of Baltimore. He was raised by a single mom. But he spent most of his time in a city recreation center, where he learned how to play the saxophone and clarinet, developed a love of the theater and joined the Boy Scouts.
    The protesters may chant that this is their city, but he hasn't given up his stake in it yet.
    "I love Baltimore," he said. "I'll defend Baltimore until I'm gone."