What Has Made America's Inner Cities Into A Violent Warzone
28 December, 2017
The stories coming out from Chicago and Baltimore paint an increasingly pessimistic picture: that America’s inner cities are transitioning into a warzone, where violence has returned to levels not seen since the drug wars of the early 1990s.
Amarley Coggins remembers the first time he dealt heroin, discreetly approaching a car coming off an interstate highway and into West Garfield Park, the neighborhood where he grew up on Chicago’s west side. He was 12 years old and had just been recruited into a gang by his older brothers and cousin.
A decade later, he sits in Cook County jail, held without bail and awaiting trial on three cases, including felony drug charges and possession of a weapon. “I have a lot of friends who didn’t make it to 22,” said Mr. Coggins, who hasn’t entered a plea. “I want to stay alive for my son and my family.”
Some community leaders and former police officials say police have pulled back from a more proactive approach on the street since April 2015, when riots erupted after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died from a broken neck he sustained in a police van. Officers had chased Mr. Gray from North and Pennsylvania, a known drug corner, and arrested him for allegedly possessing an illegal knife.
A police department spokesman said foot patrols have increased because now officers are mandated to walk through neighborhoods in the first months of field training, which wasn’t the case a few years ago.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, in charge since July 2015, also said violent criminals feel emboldened. He said judges too often give offenders who use guns suspended prison sentences.
Ericka Alston-Buck, who runs a youth center blocks from where Mr. Gray was arrested in 2015, says the violence is tied to poverty that hasn’t eased since the riots. “You have to be here to feel the blight, the vacant houses, the cat-sized rodents that run through the streets, the open-air drug markets, prostitution, no grocery store,” she said.
Jacqueline Caldwell, a local resident who leads a
nonprofit umbrella group that includes several west-side community associations, said the police have become nonexistent over the past two years. “I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out we need more police on the street, more community involvement with the police,” Ms. Caldwell said.
John Skinner, a former deputy police commissioner who retired in 2014, said after the riots, police feared “another triggering effect.” He said while he thinks the retreat from proactive policing was brief, its effects were lasting. “Violence can escalate really, really rapidly. When it occurs it’s tough to get that stabilization back,” he said.