Rookie Baltimore officers embrace challenges of patrolling city amidst crime, understaffing
"I think people who become police officers thrive on it. I like the adrenaline rush. It’s still good to catch a criminal"
BALTIMORE — Officer Alexia Davis, 22 years old and just months out of the police academy, drew her Glock pistol and pushed open the door of a brick rowhome on East 28th Street. Contractors had found the front door kicked in and called 911.
“Baltimore City Police," she called out.
The young officer carefully cleared each floor. She found trashed bedrooms littered with potato chip bags, a Sunkist bottle and piles of clothing. Whoever broke in had fled.
It was a routine call in a city where little is routine. A petite mother of two, Davis is a rookie cop in America’s most murderous city, where officers face as much fire from politicians and community activists as from the bad guys.
“You always want to be on your toes,” she said.
The officer is one of more than 150 new hires who joined the Baltimore Police Department last year. They are welcome additions to an understaffed department that is struggling to win the trust of residents and city leaders.
Davis is assigned to patrol the Northeast District — the largest in the city. It includes Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School, from which she graduated in 2015.
That’s the same year Freddie Gray was arrested and put unrestrained in the back of a police van. His death a few days later sparked rioting from which the city and its beleaguered police force have yet to recover. Homicides soared as policing slowed and scandals exposing deep corruption in the department sowed further distrust in the community.
In the midst of the turmoil, Davis and others joined a force desperate to rebuild. The city’s campaign to recruit new cops seeks those who want to be part of “the greatest comeback story in America.” The message is not lost on the officers who graduated with Davis in January 2019.
“It’s not an easy time to enter the field of law enforcement. People are going to question and critique every decision that we make,” said Officer James Jackson, who finished at the top of Davis’ academy class.
At their graduation ceremony, Jackson closed his speech with a reminder: “We chose this career path because we want to serve this community. ... We want to be a part of the change that helps heal this city.”
Davis and her classmates are joining a profession that’s far different — with greater risk and potential pitfalls — from circumstances even a few years ago, experts on policing say. The rise of cellphone videos and body-worn cameras puts officers under more scrutiny and increases the chances that any decision will be second-guessed.
“The expectations are significant, and the consequences for making mistakes are also concerning [for] a 25-year-old coming into this profession,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank in Washington.
"The consequences for making a mistake are huge.”
Officers’ actions can be the difference between life and death, but the wrong decision can lead to termination or criminal prosecution.
“In policing 30 years ago, people would stay 25 years. Today’s recruit may find after six months or a year that the challenges they face aren’t worth it,” Wexler said.
New officers in Baltimore face daunting challenges. The force is under scrutiny from a federal court enforcing a consent decree requiring it to correct discriminatory practices, from federal prosecutors who continue to seek out corruption, from outside groups skeptical of promised reforms, and from lawmakers seeking more control and oversight.
Baltimore’s force is younger than most, meaning many officers are relatively new to policing, said Col. Richard Worley, the department’s chief of patrol. The new reality of policing is all they know, and that’s to their advantage, he said.
“They’re going to get more training, more equipment” because of the city’s reforms, Worley said. Officers are getting technology such as license plate readers and mobile ticketing systems that scan driver’s licenses during traffic stops, as well as other improved tools and training.
Worley said the profession still draws people for the same reasons it always has.
“I think people who become police officers thrive on it," he said. “I still like the adrenaline rush. It’s still good to catch a criminal."
Davis, who grew up in Baltimore, says she wanted to be a cop as long as she can remember. Though other jurisdictions might offer higher wages or less stressful working conditions, “I wanted to be an officer where I am from,” she said.
Her police academy classmate Christopher Austin is assigned to the city’s Western District, which had 59 homicides last year, the most of any district in the city. Baltimore was the only department he applied to.
“I’m never leaving the city,” said Austin, 33, who relishes his work in Baltimore but lives in Frederick.
The former U.S. Marine was raised in Maine and said he longed for a profession in which he could make a difference. After five years as a firefighter in Virginia’s Loudoun County, he left because he didn’t like the idle time when calls were slow. That is not a worry in Baltimore.
During a recent traffic stop, Austin let the driver leave before issuing a citation; the officer needed to rush to a call of an assault in progress.
While each night may bring new and unexpected chaos, the officers’ shifts begin the same way. Roll call. Austin’s started just before 11 p.m. as he and about 15 others prepared to go out into the city.
Soon he was dispatched to a domestic incident at the Gilmor Homes, a public housing complex just a couple of blocks from the station house. He spoke with a woman who told him she is breaking up with her boyfriend and doesn’t want him inside her apartment. The man said he had a right to be there.
Austin told the woman he could not force the man to leave, but after she described a history of violence, he encouraged her to file for a protective order. The woman soon left with another officer who took her to a court commissioner to get the order.
Domestic calls are a large part of police work in Baltimore. So is traffic enforcement. Later in the night, Austin spotted a gray Mazda SUV with a tail light out. He flipped on his lights and siren.
As Austin got out of his car, the SUV took off. But there would be no chase. Department policy prohibits car chases under most circumstances, as many suspects know.
“It’s frustrating,” Austin said.
Even routine calls, the officers note, quickly can become dangerous.
During her first few weeks on patrol, Davis recalled that a driver who’d been stopped by another officer pulled a gun and drove away. She and other officers searched for the car, finding the suspect — who then crashed and took off on foot.
“We just got out and confronted him,” she said.
Guns drawn, officers cornered the man, tasered him and took him into custody safely, she said.
Austin noted, “The academy is the easy part."
Four officers have been shot while on duty since Austin and Davis joined the force. A fifth officer, Sgt. Isaac Carrington was shot in a robbery outside his Northeast Baltimore home in August.
Officers know that danger. They face other challenges just trying to do their jobs or make an arrest.
In January, a video went viral of onlookers kicking a Baltimore police sergeant as he struggled to restrain a male on the ground. The same week, Davis was inadvertently struck in the face as she was trying to break up a fight between juveniles.
But officers also say they find meaning in helping people, even in the smallest interactions.
Worley, the chief of patrol, who became an officer in 1999, recalled meeting a 70-year-old man on Presbury Street whose ladder had been stolen. Worley tracked down the ladder — it had been resold to a contractor — and returned it to its rightful owner.
“He was so grateful,” Worley said. “I will never forget that.”
Davis is building her own memories. During a routine business check, a cashier warmly greeted her at the Rightway Food Express on Harford Road in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello area.
“It makes the store owners feel safe,” she said of the routine stop.
Sometimes, the cashiers ask her to stick around. At a business check at a 7-Eleven at 25th Street and Kirk Avenue, a woman called out to her: “You keep safe out there, young lady.”
Baltimore’s violence welcomed Davis during her first week on the job. She was called to a shooting on Bowleys Lane and arrived before any medic units. She found a victim lying on the ground, shot in the legs.
“You’re like, I have to do something,” she recalled. What she could do was talk to him. “I let him know that a medic is coming, trying to keep his mind occupied.”
Soothing people who need help is something Davis and Austin do routinely.
Shortly after midnight on a recent shift, Austin raced to a call for an assault in progress on West Lafayette Avenue and found an upset woman who had been attacked by her boyfriend. She said he had ripped one of her waist-length braids out of her head, and feared he would return to do worse.
Then she told him she didn’t know her boyfriend’s last name or his address.
Austin gently explained to her that with such little information, he could not write up assault charges against the man.
The woman asked Austin whether he would walk her and her 5-year-old son back to her apartment.
He accompanied them into the dark hallway of a once-stately rowhouse, up a winding staircase to her third-floor walk-up. She asked Austin whether she could have his number if her boyfriend returned. He told her she must call 911, but promised he would return quickly if she did call.
“I’m here all night," he said.