I'd like to talk a little bit about the enthusiasm with which you seemed to greet the changes made to the new police station. I saw you last week when I went to tour the Western District. You bustled along next to me as we crowded into repainted corners, and waved makeshift fans in the hot, overcrowded public room as we listened to officials make speeches about the importance of this momentous occasion. I'd like to talk a little bit about my misgivings, though.
The details about the exact amount of money Under Armour invested in this project are still a little sketchy, although it's been reported that the amount of charitable funds used to make upgrades to the locker rooms, the community room, and changes to the building's exterior, among other things, came to about $4.5 million.
Maj. Sheree Briscoe, the Western's commander, ushered me, along with a gaggle of other reporters and Baltimore business elite, through the new digs. The difference between you all and us is that when it was all over, we got in our cars and went home.
I'm worried about what an Under Armour-branded police station means for our city. Will officers get pumped up in the new, ultra-macho workout rooms and continue that aggression on the street? Will the improvement make more officers want to flock into the city to work (and then get in their cars and drive back to the county or Pennsylvania)?
Scott Plank said he wants more collaborations like this one to happen in the future: "We hope that if this is successful that the state, the mayor, the federal government, everybody wants to think about this as, let's do more of these, maybe even more than just Baltimore, maybe they go to other cities as well if this is a great model."
Marsha Batterman spoke for you toward the end of the tour. Wearing a simple, flowered spaghetti strap dress, her hair pulled back off her face, she told us that she had lived near the Western District police station for most of her 67 years. As the crowed stood in the room, decorated with up-to-date gym equipment and things like punching bags and medicine balls, she said she remembered when homes were razed to build it, remembered playing in the dirt that would be cleared away for the building. Most of all, she was bubbling over with enthusiasm for the police station, and what these new changes could mean.
"Oh my! I tell you I'm just so pleased," she said, after being miked up for the TV cameras. "I encourage the community to come and sit at the reflection garden because I tried it myself, I just set down, and unwind. I really felt good, and I'm a water person so I just sat and listened to the water and I tell you, such a wonderful thing."
She didn't say anything bad about the police. I'm sure it wouldn't have gone over very well if you did either. The buzzwords of the day were things like "inclusivity," "engagement," "collaboration." Brutality wouldn't have made the organizers, who maintained an attitude of steely cheerfulness throughout the whole event, very happy. Batterman did say she had a daughter, and I wonder now if she's ever feared the police on her behalf.
"I walk through my community and I talk to my people and I tell you they come to me as a resource," she said. "And I don't want to leave, I want to stay here."
By the time Batterman started speaking, I'd already decided that something seemed…not right. The men's locker room looked just like a football locker room. A wall had slogans and words like "think globally" "we started this," "family," and "it's making you better" interspersed with the Under Amour logo. On the wall to the shower and sink area "sacrifice to serve" was spelled out in bold black letters.
Briscoe said that some of the behind-the-scenes changes were aimed at making life a little easier for officers. "When you come into a space and it doesn't accommodate everything that you need or isn't as well-kempt and doesn't have some of the better equipment, it's a message, it's a subliminal message it's no different than being in any other environment outside," she said.
It seems as though the idea is that if the police had better stuff they'd stop beating people and sometimes killing people and, as a video just revealed what so many have said for decades, planting drugs on people. Better working conditions are good, but I'm not seeing how new digs fix the kind of cruelty and lawlessness that we've seen out of the department. What about you, the community? What kind of healing do you get? What restoration do you receive? This is the precinct the officers charged with Freddie Gray's death worked out of, after all.
I felt conflicted, standing there among you all, and recording Batterman. I am always ranting about the importance of black voices talking about their own community, rather than some white person doing it for them. And your opinion mattered more than most of those there—most of you are elders in the community, and who am I to judge you?
But I also felt protective. I didn't want you to be used. I didn't want you to be the black faces that makes it OK for a large business to use money to buy potentially unchecked access into this city.
I wondered about the effectiveness of things like reflection pools, positive words, or even the quote from Thurgood Marshall engraved on the front steps ("In recognizing the humanity in our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.").
During the event, Briscoe said that they were trying to bring back a certain type of police officer. That, she hoped, would bring about the change in police-community relations that we need.
"When I was growing up there was an officer friendly, and he or she was in my neighborhood and he or she was available, I could talk to him," she said. But policing in Baltimore and across the country needs change that is made on more than just a character who may or may not have existed. It needs systemic top-down changes that go beyond a renovation.
Mostly I wanted the best for you. You, and thousands of other people in this city, have been working hard to make the best out of a bad situation for decades. You deserve more than just tax-deductible scraps. You deserve more than a police station and a few photo ops. You deserve not to be used. You are owed more.