‘There’s always a story’: Baltimore police hear tales of America’s ‘heroin capital’

In History of Baltimore program, trainees take time to understand culture of city where police have clashed with residents and drug use is widespread

Standing in front of a room of nearly 100 police officers and cadets in the police academy, Heaven Godley told the story of the first time he was arrested, when he was 17 years old.

He said his mother sent him to the store for groceries and an officer stopped him on his way home. When he told the officer his name was Heaven Godley, the officer didnt believe him and knocked the bag from his hand. Godley ran towards his house, where he was stopped at gunpoint and arrested for disorderly conduct.

They locked me up. When I was younger, I wanted to be a police officer, but when this happened … he said, and trailed off.

Ten years later, Godley told the officers, he was addicted to heroin and cocaine and selling drugs. The same officer approached him as he was conducting a deal, and Godley put the drugs in his mouth. The officer started choking him as another punched him in the stomach. When Godley tried to run again, the beating got worse. Three days later, when he saw a doctor in Central Booking, he was diagnosed with a fractured jaw, a concussion, and a broken finger.

Godley was admittedly nervous to be recounting these stories to a room of police officers and cadets on Thursday. But he was there to talk about his experience as an addict, as part of Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Daviss program to teach the citys history to the officers, a majority of whom dont live in the city of Baltimore.

As Godley described the beating, most of the officers looked down. The stories could have been taken from the scathing Department of Justice report, which was released last week and presented a picture of a department that regularly made unconstitutional stops and engaged in excessive force, especially among the citys African American population.

The larger History of Baltimore program initiated by Davis and organized by the Open Society Institute has included units on the history and effects of segregation in the city, the LGBT community, the port, African American culture, and the faith community.

Its important for police officers in Baltimore to know about the challenges that impact their future job for the trainees and their job as police officers, said Davis, who stopped in for the end of the event. If youre more aware about the culture where you police, youre going to be more culturally sensitive.

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Police listen during the History of Baltimore program. Photograph: Evan Serpick OSI Baltimore

And I think the mistake our profession has made is we introduce a very academic cultural sensitivity curriculum on an occasional basis inside a classroom, and we preach to police officers about the necessity to be culturally sensitive and to respect other races and genders and ethnicities and sexual orientations but thats just a lecture. So to kind of come out and hear from people who live it and breathe it, each and every day, sticks with these cops better than the traditional lecture-style classroom.

The session on heroin tackles another problem with a long history in Baltimore.

With nearly 10,000 estimated chronic users of heroin in the city, addiction is something Baltimore police see a lot of. Both ABC News and National Geographic have dubbed Baltimore the heroin capital of the US, accounting for roughly $165m of the $27bn national industry.

Baltimore has been struggling with heroin since the mid 1960s, and frankly, it only garnered local and national attention when it made its way out to the suburbs and started affecting people who look differently than people who live in the city, Davis said. So instead of just knowing that Baltimore has a heroin problem, why does it have a heroin problem and do you know any drug addicts or have you ever heard of their experiences with police officers, good, bad, or indifferent?

Even among the cadets, some already had personal experience with addiction.
Asked why they wanted to join the force, one young white man who had moved from Boston said he wanted to get drugs off the streets. His mother was an addict and so he came to a drug-infested town like this.

According to the DoJ report, a number of the departments worst violations were either committed or approved of by supervisors who were trained under the zero tolerance policies at the height of the drug war and found it difficult to change their approach, which is one reason Davis hopes to help new recruits reach a more nuanced view.

Neill Franklin, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said Davis was the right leadership at the helm. But he questioned whether Davis would be able to change the behavior of mid-level management, including sergeants, lieutenants, and district commanders.

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Kevin Davis talks with neighborhood kids in Baltimore last year. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

They are the ones that are interacting with patrol officers on a daily basis and theyre the ones that pretty much control the culture..

But, Franklin says, you also have to work on the police union, prosecutors, public officials, and the public itself. Weve got five decades of fighting this failed war on drugs, and old habits are very hard to break, not just for police officers, but the public in general has a difficult time shedding the approach of the past the get tough on crime, lock em up [approach], he said.

For Davis, a white commissioner who took over the top cop job when his predecessor was fired following last years unrest over the death of Freddie Gray, it is clear that the old way of thinking about drugs and crime does not work.

I just think we cant expose police officers enough to all of the vices in life that attract police attention because theres always a story behind each and every one of those vices, and I think the solution to a vice isnt necessarily a pair of handcuffs.

The DoJ is currently working with the city and the police department to arrive at a legally binding consent decree to reform the department.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/21/baltimore-police-residents-stories-heroin-history-kevin-davis