“He told me he was the next thing to God,” Estep recalled on Tuesday, a day after rioters ran amok in the blue-collar Mid-Atlantic city of 620,000.
“He said, ‘I’ll mess around and take your freedom — or I might mess around and take your life’,” the 56-year-old Baltimore native told .
Today, he said, things are hardly different, as public trust in Baltimore’s police department sinks to new lows.
“I’m not saying the police have an easy job, but the way they police now…” Estep said, trailing off without finishing his sentence.
“I could go on with these horror stories about people living in a black neighborhood. “Baltimore has been on a knife’s edge since the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, 25, a week after he was pinned to the sidewalk and taken into custody.
Six police officers have been suspended, pending the outcome of a police investigation that is due to report to the Maryland state prosecutor on Friday.
But Gray’s death — the latest in a recent series in the United States going back to unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last year — was no exception.
Thirty-one people died after police encounters in the Baltimore between 2010 and 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a report in March.
An investigation by the Baltimore Sun newspaper in September revealed how the city has paid out $5.7 million dollars since 2011 to settle more than 100 civil suits alleging police brutality.
The US Justice Department reacted by promising a root-and-branch “collaborative review” into Baltimore’s policing practices.
More often than not, the Sun said, the victims who filed civil suits were African-Americans whose charges against them were dismissed — if they were charged at all.
The biggest payout, $500,000, went to a couple who were arrested in 2007 on dubious charges of kidnapping their grandson. The husband was severely beaten in custody, leaving him with kidney failure.
At the other extreme, settling for $30,000 was a furnace repairman who said an officer stopped him in 2009, pulled him out his vehicle, stomped on his head and bent his right wrist, fracturing it.
“You’ve got some good ones out there, but it seems like it’s getting worse,” a 68-year-old man who only gave his name as Clarence told IPP News.
Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, who came to Baltimore in 2012 after stints as police chief in Long Beach and Oakland, California, acknowledges the challenges he faces in implementing reform.
“It’s clear that what we have to do is change the culture within the Baltimore Police Department,” Batts, who champions community-oriented policing, said alongside Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Both the 45-year-old mayor, a Baltimore native who is also secretary of the Democratic National Committee, and the police commissioner are African-American.
But while taxpayers are left footing the bill for misconduct, police officers are rarely if ever prosecuted.
Their union, the Fraternal Order of Police, is vigorously fighting efforts to roll back Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.
Maryland was the first state to have such a law, but critics say it makes it too easy for police wrongdoers to dodge responsibility for misconduct.
There’s enough misconduct to sustain a blog, www.baltimorecriminaldefenselawyerblog.com, maintained by a local law firm.
Recent entries discuss a 36-year-old officer who pleaded guilty to drug charges and another who was suspended for beating a 14-year-old in full view of a TV news helicopter.
“I think that a lot of the police are racist. I think a lot of them are Ku Klux Klan members,” Aretha Williams, 45, on her way to her department store job, alleged.
May officers, she claimed, believe they “get a licence to kill by becoming a police officer”.
“For either side to commit abuse to the other is wrong, period,” she said, surveying the destruction of Monday’s chaos.
“We are all human and we all deserve the right to be respected as such.” Jerome Anderson, 64, branded the police an “occupying army” but quickly added how the wider African-American community has failed to care sufficiently for its youth.
“We’re not doing what we can,” the social worker said, “and now these chickens are coming home to roost.”