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To West Baltimoreans, 'The Largest Gang Is The ... Police'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. We're standing on the curb of Presbury Street in a neighborhood of West Baltimore known as Sandtown. This is the street where 25-year-old Freddie Gray was dragged into a police van on April 12. He died later from what police called a significant spinal injury. The police officers involved have been suspended pending an investigation. And now Sandtown has become the latest location for America's wrenching, continuing conversation about race and cops in the inner-city. We're going to fan out from here and talk to people in this place about what it means to live here, their feelings about crime, safety and the police who patrol their neighborhood in a city in which both the mayor and the chief of police and half of the police are African-American.

We met Daniel Bond, a 28-year-old student, in the parking lot of the public housing apartments on this block. A friend named Kyle smoked on a small flight of stairs leading to his door and joined our talk. Daniel Bond described Sandtown as...

DANIEL BOND: Rough - it's very rough. It's very unpeaceful. It's a depressing area, really. A bunch of people fighting and a lot of stuff like that. A lot of trash and things like that. You know, a lot of people seem very hopeless around here.

SIMON: And what about the police?

BOND: The police, from what I just witnessed, they are out of control from what I've seen. I mean, the fact that a guy get died, you know, that was the worst thing I've seen from the police.

SIMON: Have you had encounters with the police yourself?

BOND: No, I try to steer clear, you know, 'cause I worry about my safety more from the police than I actually do from the would-be criminals around this area.

SIMON: Are there gangs around here?

BOND: There are plenty of gangs, but they don't seem to be as troublesome as they are. Like, I've never seen any of the gangs do what they did to that guy.

SIMON: Yeah.

KYLE: The largest gang is the Baltimore city police.

SIMON: Do you notice a difference between cops according to their race?

BOND: No, not really. The black cops, white cops (laughter)...

KYLE: They take the same oath.

BOND: They let their paranoia, you know, take control of them and they act recklessly, you know, out of fear or whatever instead of, you know, I guess using whatever training they were supposed to have to handle the situation the way it supposed to be handled instead of going off the deep end and committing some kind of tragedy like what happened.

SIMON: Now, when you say paranoia - but even you say this is a tough neighborhood. So, I mean, aren't the police kind of wise to worry about crime here?

BOND: They're wise to worry, but they're still supposed to handle their selves still certain kind of way, you know? They're not supposed - they're supposed to...

KYLE: Conduct themselves at a more professional level.

BOND: Right.

SIMON: What if, God forbid, something happened here while we're standing here? Do you call the police or not?

KYLE: Depends on the situation.

BOND: Right, 'cause, I mean, in some situation you have absolutely no other choice but to call the police. It's not like you can call anybody, you know, else around here. But even then it's like you don't know if you're making the situation better or worse by calling them. You know, you don't know if they're going to come and de-escalate the situation or if you're going to die.

SIMON: Sandtown looks empty in the morning - whole blocks are boarded up; few people walk along the street. There's nothing that most Americans would recognize as a market. Instead, there are a few corner stores where a clerk behind safety glass presses a buzzer to let people through a steel door into a dark shop where they can buy milk, chips, toilet tissue, cigarettes and beer. Canara Davis sat on a stoop with two friends who smoked and sipped from a morning beer. She said it can be frightening to live in Sandtown.

CANARA DAVIS: A lot of guns, a lot of fighting, a lot of knives.

SIMON: What are the police like here?

DAVIS: The police, they're really, like, sometimes, you know, they can be out of control. I fear for my life. Like, if I'm walking down the street and a police officer see me and just because I ran, they stop me and pushed me up against a wall because they think I had drugs on me.

SIMON: This is the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12 after running in a high-crime area, reportedly with a knife in his pocket. A man named Lawrence Abrams says he knew Freddie Gray here in Sandtown.

LAWRENCE ABRAMS: It's a pretty decent neighborhood if you can deal with the people selling drugs, man. Everybody - this ain't no bad neighborhood except for the police.

SIMON: What about the police?

ABRAMS: They mess with people a lot. They really do. It ain't just because of that boy got killed, either. They really do harass people sometime around here. It's a drug infested neighborhood, so you're going to have that around here. The police don't want drugs in the area like some of the neighbors don't want drugs in the area, so they got to do their job. They got a job to do. That's how I look at it. I mean, people going to - some people are going to get hurt. I'm just sorry it just happened like that, that's all. You know, that guy getting killed like that 'cause I knew him and he wasn't a bad dude. He did his little thing, but he wasn't a bad dude.

SIMON: You knew Freddie.

ABRAMS: Yeah, he didn't deserve to go out like that, seriously. He sold his little drugs, but he didn't deserve to go out like that, man. I wouldn't wish that on nobody.

SIMON: Citizens in West Baltimore on the death of Freddie Gray, who died of injuries after being arrested by Baltimore police. A man approached us as we were leaving.

REGINALD WARREN: My name Reginald Warren (ph). I want to sing a song for my man Freddie Gray. (Singing) I don't know why they had to kill Freddie G. I don't know why he ran from the police. I don't know why he said he couldn't breathe. [Expletive] the police 'cause they don't need them on the streets. Pray for his family 'cause they all got needs.

That's what I want to say to my man Freddie G., man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.