Reflections From a Night Policing My City

Nothing I experienced during the 4 pm to 3 am window that I spent riding along with Central District’s Baltimore Police Department surprised me. Working in collaboration with police for the last four years prepared me for the type of interactions I saw but spending an entire shift gave me a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be a cop.

Some context: My lens, the eyes through which I see and experience the world, has been influenced by growing up in Baltimore City. Ten years ago, 16-year-old Celia, would not have been open to thinking about the complexities of being a police officer. She was participating in “Fuck-the-police” protests. When I am asked what the most surprising thing has been about starting The Inner Harbor Project, my answer is always the open collaboration with the BPD. At 26, I work with 16 years old who actively think about the nuances of being a police officer even though they have witnessed and experienced violence by police. How’s that for progress.

The first thing that became clear to me at around 12:30 am in the morning on Mcmechen St. is that police officers on patrol are responders. They position themselves in their district, in their sector, in their post to be able to respond, when they are needed, to dire situations. We overlooked a guy littering on Pennsylvania Ave; we didn’t stop a car packed to the brim so that all mirrors were obscured; and we didn’t arrest guys for not hiding their weed well. From what I saw, Broken Windows Policing is not practiced by patrol. There are special units like the Knockers who jump out at people on corners still but that’s not what we were doing.

We were lucky — there weren’t any shootings in Central that night, which meant that we were able to spend our time building relationships. When the shift first started, from 5–7, we hung around Lexington Market, chatting people up. We popped in a bunch of stores to say hi, ask how the Perfumery couple’s son is doing. But not surface-level interactions like, “Is he doing his homework? Instead: “How’s his Arabic coming? I heard he has a teacher from Pakistan.” These relationships are not shallow. When we saw the son at another shop, the officer thanked him for a restaurant recommendation. The officer and his wife had recently gone out for dinner at to an Indian spot at the son’s urging. It’s called Mumbai if you want to try it.

Our time was evenly split arresting those who were a danger to those around them and helping people who needed it. Interestingly, both types of people came to us. Towards the end of the shift, as the clubs were closing, we were driving on Redwood with the windows down and a guy came up to the car, unprovoked, and said, “I don’t have any drugs on me.” He was part of a group of three who we didn’t stop in that moment but we got on the radio to let people know to keep an eye out because they looked pretty out of it. Three minutes later, another officer stopped them, as they were about to get into a car. We ended up arresting the one who was about to drive because he pulled out his cell phone while talking to us and a heroin capsule came out. Another had a warrant out for her arrest in Anne Arundel and the guy who said, “I don’t have any drugs on me,” didn’t, so we let him go. Similarly, a woman jumped out of a moving car on Pennsylvania Ave, ripped open my passenger’s side door and told me she was scared and needed help. We found out, with a lot of coaxing and sweet-talking from the officer, that she hadn’t slept in five days due to the death of her mother. We were able to get her to the hospital that had a doctor at her side within five minutes of our arrival. I tell these stories together because we ended up spending our time responding to safety concerns as they came to us.

Police officers do navigate a lot of beaurocratic bullshit that makes it harder for them to be responsive to those in need. There’s a new division called Inspections, which job is to focus on hot spots around the city. This translates into preventing groups of people from hanging out outside their house or on a street corner. This is what is thought of as a preventative approach. So the officer I was with was called by Inspections to talk to a multi-generational group on Pennsylvania Ave. We took our time getting there because the longer we held up Inspections waiting for us, the less they could focus this strategy on another area. When we got out of our car, the group immediately dispersed. We called them back with some jokes and wise cracks. When they came back, we were honest with them. We explained the way the Inspections Unit works and how we’re really sorry that you can’t hang out without getting harassed by police but it would help a lot if they just slowly strolled up and down the block. Everyone seemed thankful that this officer had the decency to be real with them but it doesn’t make the fact of the matter — wasting resources to criminalize black men for hanging out together — any less fucked up.

My last conclusion from the evening is the one I’ve spent the most time thinking about because I want to get this right. The unit that I was with was diverse. They ranged in age from 24–60. They spoke French, German and Spanish. Some are new to this country. Some are old and cynical. They have different strengths and weaknesses. They hate this city; they love this city. While they are policing my city, they make decisions based off of how they are feeling. Almost every situation they encounter, they have dealt with 100 times before. And yet, because of the inherent danger in carrying a deadly weapon in high stress situations, the work is extremely emotional.

Before this night, I thought that officers bonded together so tightly because of the potential danger, the insecurity of the thought “if I don’t have my fellow officers’ back, then who will have mine?” But that’s not it. They bond together because of something that I felt just after ten hours with people I’d never met before: love. They love each other in an affirming, positive way. What binds the BPD together is love.

Celia Neustadt is executive director of the Inner Harbor Project. Her email is celia@innerharborproject.org.