Top Ten Baltimore News Stories of 2016

1. All charges are dropped against officers accused in Freddie Gray’s death.

President Barack Obama told The New Yorker that the day after the election, he held a meeting with staff members, many of whom were demoralized after Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory. “History does not move in straight lines,” he told them. “Sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward.” That’s worth thinking about when trying to make sense of the trials for the officers accused of Freddie Gray’s April 2015 death. Which way was history moving when State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby brought charges against the officers? What about when lawyers for the officers blamed Gray, who couldn’t be there to defend himself, for his own death? In July of this year, following one mistrial and three acquittals, Mosby announced she would be dropping all remaining charges. Mosby announced the news outside Gilmor Homes, where Gray lived, and defiantly told a supportive crowd of residents, “We’ve all bore witness to an inherent bias that is a direct result of when police police themselves.” It all feels like a mess. Is any of this progress? Is progress tiny slivers of hope? How many more Freddie Grays will die while we figure this all out? (Lisa Snowden-McCray)

2. DOJ releases report on the Baltimore Police Department.

The U.S. Department of Justice investigated Baltimore City’s police and released a scathing indictment of the force in August, noting that many of its practices were both unconstitutional and a violation of federal law. The 163-page tome confirmed what many citizens had long suspected: The Baltimore Police Department disproportionately target minorities by making “unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests” for everything from pedestrian stops to traffic stops to drug stops (with African-Americans arrested for drug possession at five times the rate of others); use unreasonable force; often fail to de-escalate situations with the mentally ill, young people, and those in crisis; “seriously and systematically” under-investigate reports of sexual assault; and allegedly mistreat transgender people; retaliate against citizens “engaging in constitutionally-protected expression”; and is rife with systemic problems, neglecting “to use adequate policies, training, supervision, data collection, analysis, and accountability systems.” The Justice Department’s understated conclusion? “[T]here is widespread agreement that BPD needs reform.” To that end, Baltimore officials are in the midst of hammering out a binding consent decree with the Justice Department. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch urged swift resolution, while President Obama is still in office, and indeed the original deadline, which the city blew past, was Nov. 1. “At this point, the ball’s in the city’s court,” Lynch told the Baltimore Sun this month. As for the city, hmmm, it appears to be stalling. (Karen Houppert)

3. For the second year in a row, murders in the city exceed 300.

A man we know, who has given everything to the city, saw both of his sons murdered this year. Parents who lose multiple children to gun violence have become a local reporting staple. What usually kills them—not always, but often—are fellow drug dealers and gang members, enforcing a culture of terrorized silence that normalizes a cycle of retribution spanning generations. In several neighborhoods, Ceasefire and Safe Streets “violence interrupters” have put a damper on this cycle. But in adjacent areas the violence continues: A minimum of 261—87 percent—of the first 300 murders in 2016 were African-Americans. The median age was 28. (Edward Ericson Jr.)

4. Catherine Pugh is elected mayor.

Catherine Pugh won the mayor’s office in a hard-fought primary battle over a surprisingly strong former Mayor Sheila Dixon. The fight was dirty, as Baltimore elections usually are. There was a mini-riot of would-be campaign workers on the street outside Pugh’s campaign headquarters after people were told they weren’t going to get a promised $100 payment for working the primary. There was a slew of (allegedly) bogus $6,000 donations from phantom people and corporations associated with a sketchy fundraiser. There was even a psychological operation involving Twitter bots. But Pugh, unflappable, persevered. Proud to be a politician, Pugh promises engaged competence in City Hall. She touts her business savvy, setting up the Baltimore Design School, and her rise in state politics to be Senate Majority Leader. She knows how to play the game. Stern, taciturn, yet connected to the city and its people at all levels, Pugh does not shirk responsibility. She wants mayoral control of city schools and has pledged to put more city money into them as well. She’s promised to reform the police department with, at last, proper civilian oversight. And, in addition to a push to create more jobs here, she stuck to her campaign promise to get rid of Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano. He announced his resignation in late December, a move the new mayor undoubtedly had a hand in. Her agenda is ambitious. As always, in Baltimore, the mayor has her work cut out for her. (EE)

5. Lor Scoota is killed.

On June 25, at Harford and Moravia roads, somebody pulled up on West Baltimore hero Lor Scoota and fired into his car, killing the local phenom born Tyriece Watson—and best known for his blackly comic crack-dealing anthem, ‘Bird Flu.’ This was a major loss to the city—its most promising and compelling rapper gunned down, as he left a charity basketball game, no less. But the city gathered together in peaceful mourning. There was a moment of silence at Penn-North the day after his murder and a series of vigils and in-memoriam events full of dancing and demands to stop the violence. All of this should answer every right wing dullard’s question about the Black Lives Matter movement—why don’t people protest shootings?— because, well, here’s evidence that they do. But sometimes when they do, the Baltimore Police show up in riot gear to stop a massive vigil, which is what happened on Pennsylvania Avenue a few day after Scoota’s death. Scoota’s killer has not yet been identified and his songs ‘Panda (G Mix),’ ‘Bird Flu,’ and ‘King Me,’ just to name a few, still get the city dropping, shuffling, shouting, and turning up. RIP Up Next. (Brandon Soderberg)

6. The city agrees to Port Covington project.

A veritable new city is set to rise in South Baltimore, part corporate headquarters for Under Armour, part literal playground with a kayak launch, and part young-adult fantasy land of urban living with 7,000 or more townhouses and apartments, a hotel, and 1.5 million square feet of retail and entertainment space. Port Covington’s 260 acres will reportedly cost $7 billion to develop over decades, but the city will forego much of the property taxes paid by its residents in order to fund the underground infrastructure required to make the project viable. The $660 million tax-increment financing is the largest in Baltimore’s history, and it was passed with some controversy: About $125 million of the cost of the bonds will be eaten up by lawyers and issuance fees, affordable housing was an afterthought, and initial plans for steering city residents into the 8,000 projected jobs were lacking. Perhaps in an attempt to quiet protesters, Under Armour founder Kevin Plank’s people offered the six neighborhoods bordering the project a mix of cash incentives and squishy promises potentially totaling more than $100 million. (EE)

7. Korryn Gaines is killed after a six-hour standoff with county police.

Baltimore County police shot and killed Korryn Gaines, 23, during an August standoff as she cradled a shotgun. Her young son was also injured in the incident. A month later, State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger announced that no charges would be filed against the officer who shot her, described by Baltimore County Police only as Officer 1st Class Ruby. An attorney for Gaines’ family expressed concerns that the decision was based solely on police’s version of the incident. However, as City Paper pointed out at the time, there were still many points of contention about police protocol during the incident. First, why and how did police take the unprecedented step of shutting down Gaines’ contact with the outside world via Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat? Did the police shoot at Gaines first, possibly missing her? Finally, why didn’t police call in their crisis team during the standoff? Gaines’ death was a wake-up call that we need to expand the critical eye we train on police here in the city outward into the county as well. It was also a reminder that deaths at the hands of police don’t just happen to black men. (LS)

8. Surveillance plane spies on citizens from above.

Back in August, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that most of Baltimore was being secretly recorded by a surveillance plane that circled much of the city for months and barely anybody knew—not the mayor, not the governor, not the City Council, not the State’s Attorney’s Office. It was a trial run, Baltimore police said, and could be important to solving crime. They also said that the plane wasn’t all that different from the CitiWatch cameras that hang from lights all over Baltimore and that they didn’t need to tell the public, which is, well, a stretch. They also don’t think it’s a big deal that it was all organized by a private business, Persistent Surveillance Systems, and that it was funded by billionaires in Houston, who funneled the money to groups such as Baltimore Community Foundation, which then gave it to the police to pay the public company, which kind of sounds like money laundering to us, but hey. The ACLU was upset, so were activists. Meanwhile, the data itself is owned by PSS and has been held long past the agreement of 45 days and has even been used to charge people with crimes. This is a trial run for sure—of a grim Orwellian nightmare future in which Baltimoreans’ every steps are recorded and retained. (BS)

9. Baltimore’s vacants are a fact of life—and cause of death.

Thomas Lemmon was minding his own business, sitting in his parked 1983 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, when the rowhouse at 900 N. Payson Street collapsed on top of him, burying his car in rubble with him inside it. He died.

In official records, the collapsed building was owned by Eugene Boykins, who preceded Lemmon in death by 17 years. A tax lien on the abandoned house was traced to an LLC domiciled in Florida by a law firm that specializes in extracting cash from cities like Baltimore, and from their dangerous and otherwise worthless vacants. But that company’s potential liability was questionable at best.

The March 28 collapse on Payson was followed quickly by a spate of other house collapses, spurring Baltimore officials to announce that, without federal money, collapsing buildings will remain a routine fact of life—as they have been for a decade or more. “I don’t have a secret money tree in the basement,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Governor Larry Hogan had already promised $94 million to Baltimore for demolition, but the city earmarked most of that money for whole-block demolition in the service of redevelopment, not emergency demolition in the service of public safety. Priorities. (EE)

10. Sinkholes swallow our city—almost.

Downtown is collapsing beneath our feet. In April, Centre Street caved in over a broken sewage main. Then in July another, even bigger one opened at Paca and Mulberry, apparently sucking in a Department of Public Works employee. That one required the closure of Franklin, as well as Mulberry, so that they could dig holes under the light rail to ship your shit on a bypass route. The giant plastic pipes are everywhere, with little wooden bridges built over them so pedestrians can clamber the tubes of flowing feces. Almost immediately after they fixed the Centre Street sinkhole and closed it up, a new hole opened, shutting down Cathedral Street. It now looks like an insane medieval fortress that disrupts the just-completed bike lane. But each of these emergency collapses makes it harder to do other necessary work—we blew through the deadline for a consent decree with the EPA to stop sewage overflows into the harbor this year and had to get an extension—and we’ve already spent more than $700 million on the upgrades, so this will certainly continue to be a story for years to come. Unless, of course, the whole city just sinks underground and we’re dead. (Baynard Woods)

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