BALTIMORE — The first police officer Freddie Gray encountered on the morning he sustained a fatal spinal cord injury was Lt. Brian Rice, a seasoned 41-year-old white law enforcement officer who, several years earlier, had his guns confiscated by deputies who took him to a hospital after a worried ex-girlfriend expressed alarm about his well-being.
About 40 minutes later, when Mr. Gray, who was black, lay shackled in a police van and was no longer breathing, Sgt. Alicia White — a 30-year-old churchgoing black woman with a reputation as a rising star — tried to remove him. “She’s not even the type of person that would jaywalk,” one neighbor said.
In between, Mr. Gray was subdued and handcuffed by two rookie bicycle officers, each in his 20s, both white. A 25-year-old black patrolman arrived to check on him. The van driver, Officer Caesar Goodson, also black, is an old-timer at 45. Described by colleagues as “passive,” he never moved up the ranks.
“You can’t just label this something racial,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who lives just four blocks from West North and Pennsylvania Avenues, where a burned and looted CVS store stands as a symbol of the riots set off by Mr. Gray’s death on April 19. “When you have three African-American officers involved, you’ve got to say: ‘Wait a minute, is there a system in place in which they don’t want to tell on each other? Has it become a routine?’ ”
Over the past three decades, Baltimore’s roughly 3,000-member police force has undergone a slow, painful process of integration. In 1984, the year the city settled a lawsuit that forced the department to hire and promote more minorities and women, 19 percent of officers were black. By 2007, blacks were 44 percent of the force; the city’s population is nearly two-thirds black. The commissioner, Anthony W. Batts, is black, and African-Americans hold other high-ranking posts.
Despite that, tensions between black residents and the police run deep. Last week’s decision by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to request a “pattern or practice” Justice Department inquiry — something she had long resisted, even as she pushed for changes — emphasizes that mistrust. Civil rights advocates say it is long overdue.
So do some black police officers. In 2004, Sgt. Louis Hopson, now the board chairman of the Vanguard Justice Society, the association that represents the city’s black officers, was the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit alleging that the department systematically disciplined black officers more harshly than whites. In 2009, the city settled the case, agreeing to pay $2.5 million to more than a dozen plaintiffs and to hire an outside consultant to monitor the internal discipline process for three years.
But the problems have persisted, some black officers say. In March, court records show, Baltimore settled another bias suit, brought by a former officer, Richelle Johnson, a black woman who complained that she was forced to retire and that the department was more accommodating to white officers who were injured and requested light duty than to blacks. The terms of the settlement have not been made public, and a lawyer for Ms. Johnson would not discuss it.
An Internal Divide
“There are two Baltimores, and there are two Baltimore City Police Departments,” said Sergeant Hopson, 63, a 35-year veteran. “This department is a very racist police department. The issues that you see manifesting themselves on the outside are the same problems we have been dealing with on the inside for years.”
The relentless drumbeat of criticism is depressing officer morale. Many police officers are furious with Ms. Rawlings-Blake, whom their union supported when she ran for mayor in 2011, for asking for the Justice Department review. They feel undermined as they work to maintain the peace in a city with a high homicide rate.
“Our police officers have a number of conflicting emotions, from anger and shock to sadness and depression,” said Sgt. Robert F. Cherry, a 21-year veteran and former president of the Baltimore chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, in an interview. “It is a tough time to be a police officer.”
The union has stood firmly behind the six arrested in Mr. Gray’s death; Sergeant Cherry accused Marilyn J. Mosby, the prosecutor who filed the charges, of “political opportunism” and wondered aloud if she had “an exit strategy for grossly overcharging our six officers.” Sergeant Hopson said the Vanguard Justice Society was also planning a news conference for this week to show support for the three black officers.
Sergeant White, the lone woman among them, is an example of how the six officers reflect the two Baltimores, and the two Baltimore Police Departments. After joining the force in 2010, she caught the eye of Sergeant Hopson, who said he recruited her into a program he runs to prepare black officers to take tests required for promotions.
She became a sergeant this year, said Dana Neal, a nondenominational minister who said Sergeant White regarded her as an adopted aunt. “She is a Christian and wants to be a good role model for young black women,” Ms. Neal said, adding that Sergeant White hoped to “bridge the gap between the police and the neighborhoods.”
Sergeant White grew up in Baltimore and lives here; Sergeant Cherry said 35 percent of the force now lives in the city. But black residents have complained that too many officers live outside Baltimore and feel no attachment to it. Sergeant White has worked for the Police Athletic League, helping young people with homework, and her church, New Bethlehem Baptist Church, is in Sandtown-Winchester, the blighted neighborhood where Mr. Gray grew up and was arrested before his fatal injury.
Now, she faces charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office; Ms. Mosby alleges Sergeant White “did nothing” to help Mr. Gray even though he was lying on the floor of the van and unresponsive.
The encounter that led to Mr. Gray’s death began around 8:40 a.m. on April 12, when the three white officers — Lieutenant Rice, Officer Edward Nero and Officer Garrett Miller — were patrolling the streets around the Gilmor Homes, a public housing development in West Baltimore. Lieutenant Rice spotted Mr. Gray, making eye contact with him, police have said, and Mr. Gray ran off.