LAST week was an unusually busy news cycle in Baltimore. On Tuesday, State Sen. Catherine Pugh defeated 12 candidates to win the Democratic mayoral primary, which in this predominantly Democratic city means she is almost certainly Baltimore's next mayor. The City Council race attracted dozens of candidates and produced a seismic shift in its makeup. Then, on Thursday, a man who was likely suffering from a mental breakdown donned a hedgehog suit and presented himself as a suicide bomber, threatening to set off the explosives he had strapped to his chest if Fox 45 did not air Panama-related information he had on a flash drive. (Police shot him in the leg and the "bombs" turned out to be candy bars.)
Wednesday was also the anniversary of Freddie Gray's funeral and the riot. As residents and city officials rallied, reflected, and discussed police reform and community reconciliation last week, there were two other police-involved shootings and 10 homicides, keeping Baltimore on track for its nearly one-a-day murder rate last year (344 total for a city of 623,000 compared to 348 in New York, a city of 8.4 million, last year ).
Indeed, at the very moment that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis were gathered near Mondawmin Mall on Wednesday to speak about healing in West Baltimore, police in East Baltimore were chasing a 14-year-old with a realistic-looking BB gun who, after refusing to drop it, was shot in the shoulder and leg. The African-American youth was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital and is in stable condition.
Commissioner Davis left Mondawmin Mall and rushed down to the scene to brief reporters. The incident took place on East Baltimore Street when two plainclothes officers driving by saw a 14-year-old holding a basketball in one hand and what they thought was a semiautomatic pistol in the other. The plainclothes officers got out of their car, identified themselves as police, told the boy—later identified as Dedric Colvin—to drop his gun and when the boy fled without complying, ran after him for 150 yards before shooting, Commissioner Davis said at a press conference immediately after the incident.
When Colvin's mother emerged from her house to discover that her son had been shot, her "emotions [ran] high," Commissioner Davis said. The mother, Volanda Young, was handcuffed and taken by the police to headquarters, where she was questioned and remained for several hours before being taken to the hospital.
A witness, who asked not to be identified, told City Paper that the mother asked officers which hospital her son was going to, and as she was leaving, officers handcuffed her. The witness provided video of the encounter.
As he spoke to reporters at the site shortly after the incident, Davis questioned the 8th grader's thinking—and the mother's. "Now why this young man chose to leave his home with a replica semi-automatic pistol in his hand, I don't know," he said. "His mom approached some police officers here and she made an admission to our police officers that she knew her son left their home with what she described as a BB gun in his hand."
"Why this young man chose to flee on foot when he was approached by two police officers, why this young man chose not to drop the gun and comply with the officers, I don't know that either," he continued. "I've got two 13-year-olds at home so I'm trying to imagine my two 13-year-olds at home leaving my house with a replica of a semi-automatic pistol in their hands. I can't wrap my head around that." He goes on to repeat three more times that the boy's mother knew about the BB gun, "I know that the mom knew, the mom knew that her son left their house with a replica of a semi-automatic pistol in his hand."
His mother would later tell The Baltimore Sun that she did not know where he got the BB gun.
Once the basics were established, the obvious could not be ignored. Davis was asked about his thoughts on a police shooting occurring on the anniversary of the unrest. He wished he wasn't here but "the job of police officers here, and elsewhere, goes on," he said. And it is the job of officers to identify threats with guns.
Asked if the boy pointed the gun at officers or if he was on the ground when the officer shot him, Davis said those details would become available following an investigation.
Davis held a press conference the following afternoon and said that his officers did the right thing. Two guns were placed on the table in front of the podium in the Baltimore Police Department's media briefing room. One was a Beretta 92FS, the other a Daisy PowerLine Model 340, available online for as little as $15. The latter is a BB gun, but it is almost indistinguishable from the former.
"I've been saying all along that, as the city's police commissioner, I'm gonna call balls and strikes. I'm gonna call it like I see it."
He told reporters that after the chase, the 8th grader turned toward the officers and 12-year BPD veteran Thomas Smith shot him. "Police officers don't have to wait until they're being shot at to engage in a deadly force scenario."
In the eyes of the police, this is their job.
He offered a hypothetical to the reporters of any citizen walking in Baltimore with what looks like a gun. "What do they want the police to do? What do they expect us to do? Drive by? We can't call 9-1-1, we are 9-1-1. What do the citizens expect us to do?" he said. "If that happens in front of your house, your street, your neighborhood, and someone's walking down the street with what looks to be a gun in his hand. The response, in my opinion, is for the police department to do something about it."
"This has nothing to do with police-community relations," he later said. "This is a police response to a person seen in broad daylight with a gun in his hand in the middle of the street."
Davis was asked about reports from witnesses that Colvin yelled "It's not real!" and said the department is still investigating. The officers under his charge have no way of knowing unless they are "on the receiving end of that gun and [are] staring down the barrel of it and the trigger is pulled. That's the only time we're ever gonna know if it's a replica."
An independent witness told the police Colvin still had the gun in his hand when he turned around to face the officers, Davis said. He could not yet say what direction the gun was pointed in, he said.
A reporter also asked about the handcuffing of Colvin's mother. "I can only imagine when this mother came out…and learned that her son was not only shot but shot by a police officer," he said. "So emotions run high. The fact that a police officer on the scene made a decision, a judgment call during a very volatile scenario to temporarily restrain the mom with handcuffs was a judgment call they made based on what was happening at that very emotional moment. She was never charged with a crime. We have no intention to charge her with a crime. She was treated as a witness here at police headquarters and gave us a statement."
Was cuffing her the right call?
"I don't know that I know enough to call a ball or strike on that one yet," he said. "I promise I will when I know more about it."
Another reporter touched on the department's goal of getting illegal guns and trigger-pullers off the streets and posed a different hypothetical: "If someone is walking outside with a realistic looking gun, are they in jeopardy of being chased and shot by the police?"
"Well, that's a provocative question," Davis said.
And then he answered: "I understand the nature of the question. But I think it's not a good idea in Baltimore, or elsewhere, to walk outside of your home with either one those objects in your hand, whether it's real or not. Because you place the community in jeopardy, you place yourself in jeopardy, and you place public safety in jeopardy when you have one of those in your hand."
He did not want anyone to see parallels in what he described as "a unique scenario," likely hoping to forestall comparisons to the 2014 police shooting of Cleveland's Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old killed while playing with a BB gun. "Any effort to compare what happened in Baltimore yesterday to any other well-publicized event in America is simply not the right thing to do, and it's not accurate."
As Dedric Colvin was being shot in East Baltimore, a 12-year-old boy named Frank had just finished speaking at a rally in front of the CVS at Pennsylvania and North avenues in West Baltimore. The event, organized by Circle of Voices and other groups on the anniversary of the riot after Freddie Gray's funeral, was a way of reflecting on police and community.
During an open-mic session, the boy was invited to tell his story.
"One time when I was 10 or 11, my friend, he wanted to have some fun, he was riding a little dirt bike and the police beat down on him for riding a dirt bike. He was 9 years old," Frank said. "When I seen that, things changed."
Frank mentioned his brother who sold drugs and had been to jail and how his father told him not to end up that way. "My father working two jobs right now just to take care of me," he added. "I seen everything."
And then Frank started to cry. A few activists consoled him. "You good, shorty," a man from the crowd yelled, and Frank continued. "As long as you got a chain around your neck or a designer belt they're gonna arrest you," he said. "They think you're selling drugs or you stole it."
The ACLU of Maryland agrees with Frank. Hours after Davis' press conference, the organization released the following statement: "This latest incident, on the anniversary of the Uprising for Freddie Gray, underscores the systemic lack of accountability to boys like Dedric Colvin, who they are sworn to serve.
"Fourteen-year-old boys play with BB guns all over the country every day without getting shot by police. It dehumanizes Black children when law enforcement and our society so quickly seek to justify a shoot-to-kill response when a Black child in East Baltimore does the same thing."
For police, assessing a situation and deciding whether to de-escalate or shoot happens in seconds—and research shows implicit biases can play a role. A 2014 study published by the American Psychological Association found that black boys are often viewed as older and less innocent than their white counterparts.
"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," wrote study author and University of California, Los Angeles professor Phillip Atiba Goff. "Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."
The researchers conducted a series of tests, one of which involved 176 officers from "a large urban area." Most of the officers involved in the testing were white and male. Researchers wanted to find out whether officers were biased, and also whether they had "an unconscious dehumanization" of black people. They also factored in whether the officers who participated in the testing had a history of use of force (defined as things like takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; or using a police dog) while on duty.
"Researchers reviewed police officers' personnel records to determine use of force while on duty and found that those who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks," the American Psychological Association said in a statement about the research.
"We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial differences was linked to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force," Goff wrote.
A cohort of 264 non-police officers showed similar bias. The mostly white study participants considered all children innocent until age 9. At age 10, discrepancies set in with black children judged less innocent than white children and also pegged as 4.5 years older on average than they actually were.
Teachers too, have been found to discipline black children more harshly than white children, according to a study published last April by the Association for Psychological Science. "The researchers randomly assigned names to student files, suggesting in some cases that the student was black (with a name such as DeShawn or Darnell) and in other cases that the student was white (with a name such as Greg or Jake)," the group wrote in a news release about the study. "Researchers found that racial stereotypes shaped teachers' responses not after the first infraction but rather after the second. Teachers felt more troubled by a second infraction they believed was committed by a black student rather than by a white student." Further, teachers "were more likely to see the misbehavior as part of a pattern, and to imagine themselves suspending that student in the future."
On Saturday, speaking at a National Association of Black Journalists conference at Morgan State University, Commissioner Davis acknowledged things would likely be different if it were his own children. "They're two 13-year-old white kids," Davis said. "If they had a gun in their hand, would it be perceived differently? Yeah, I'd be the first one to admit that."