Here's What It's Like To Be A Black Cop In Baltimore
"I don’t wanna do this shit no more."
Michael Baysmore is the type of police officer a lot of reform-minded people want to see. He grew up in the city he polices in and understands the community he interacts with. He has been a police officer for eight years, two with the Baltimore Police Department and six with the Coppin State University Police Department. For most of those years, he planned to be a cop until the day he retired with a nice pension to his name.
But he doesn't feel that way anymore. Like many officers, he is frustrated by what he sees as growing anti-police sentiment. Yet he also empathizes with the simmering anger over police brutality. He has seen it firsthand — in a police department now under federal review — and he has felt powerless in the face of an institution that has long bred a culture of aggression and secrecy.
During his years as a police officer, Baysmore believes that he has worked hard to build bridges with the people who often distrust police the most. Imagine his despair, then, when he looks up and sees that those bridges have turned to ash.
I hated police growing up. Because that’s just what you’re taught to do. None of my friends liked the police. I grew up in the Norwood section of Baltimore and we didn’t really see them that often unless something was going on. We did whatever we had to do so we didn’t have to deal with them. I never got harassed really, unless I was out in the county.
My mindset changed at 16 when my mother and my father had a domestic dispute and the police came. One officer was black; one was white. I thought all police were assholes and expected them to come in and lock us all up. But they were just professional. During the situation, I had assaulted my father, too. They told me they could lock me up based on what I had done, but they looked out for me. They gave me advice. They said that’s not the kind of situation I wanna be in when I’m my father’s age because that shit could screw my whole life up.
But all along I never thought I would become a cop. It was kind of random. I was taking up mechanical engineering my first two years in college, at Valparaiso. The plan was I would be an architect or something along those lines. But when it came to the coursework, I was getting really bored. I realized it wasn’t for me. I needed something a little more people-oriented. I ended up at Towson College, majoring in psychology, still in limbo career-wise. I was thinking maybe a counselor or psychologist. But to do that I needed a master's or PhD and at the time I wanted to start working. I told myself I wanted a career where no two days are the same. Something that would challenge me. Something where I could interact with people. The fire department wasn’t hiring at the time, and I knew I didn’t want to go be a guard at the nearby jail.
Here in America, they’re supposed to rehabilitate — which I don’t think they do a good job of in jail or in prison.
My father was a correctional officer. When I was 3, he got stabbed up real bad. I don’t remember too much of it, but I remember seeing him in a full-body cast coming home. He was all bandaged up. He retired after that. All these years, I didn’t really know what happened. But he told me the story a couple of months ago. He was working in the yard and it was one of those days when you can sense something bad was going to happen. Real quiet, not too much bustle. Some guy pulled him into a phone booth and a bunch of guys got him. They were going after any guard. Everything was brewing. Not too long after there was a riot down in the jail.
Here in America, they’re supposed to rehabilitate — which I don’t think they do a good job of in jail or in prison. Food’s terrible. Inmates are treated inhumanely. They’re just locked up not doing anything. When they get out they’re gonna be worse. They get out of prison and can’t get jobs. And that’s when I gotta deal with them.
I try to avoid arresting somebody at all costs. There’s no need to add to somebody’s record or give somebody a record. It’s hard enough as it is. And, being a young black guy, I know I’m lucky I don’t have one. But I know friends who have records for something as small as driving on a suspended license, which has held them back from getting the career they want. All because they don’t have the money to pay that ticket off. You can see how that frustration can build, how people end up being angry.
When I was in the academy nine years ago, I was trained to be scared. You want to have some kind of fear and not try to play hero. That’s what keeps you alive. The idea of going into a house and not knowing what the layout is like or who’s inside or what’s inside or if they’re going to try to shoot you — that tripped me out when I first got out of the academy. But then your training takes over and you don’t think so much.
Something that always scares me, even now, is traffic stops. You never know who’s behind the wheel. Even if you run the tag and get the information, you still don’t really know if that’s really the person behind the wheel, or who else is in the car, or what they have with them, or what kind of day they had. If they just got fired from their job. If they just killed somebody.
Early in my career, if somebody ran a stop sign or a red light, I usually pulled them over. But now, if it’s not something where they hit somebody or they’re jeopardizing someone's safety, I might just let it slide. It’s just not worth it. I think about the officer who got shot near Coppin State a couple of years ago. The officer was near the gas station and he smelled weed coming from a car. Car gets pulled over. Turned out one of the guys had a gun and had just gotten out of jail. One of those things where you just never know. The cop tried to tase him but the guy was wearing a jacket and he didn’t feel the Taser.
The cop lived, and they caught the guy who did it.
Some African-Americans look at me as a betrayer. Some look at me as a go-between for when they might have to deal with white officers.
The good thing is that I’m younger and I look like the people I interact with. I talk like them and I talk to them the way I would talk to anybody else. Instead of me coming up to somebody and saying, “Hey sir, can you move off the corner?” I’m like, “Yo what the fuck you doin’? Do you live here? Why you hanging out on the corner? I understand you wanna be on the block and do your thing, but don’t do it in front of me.” They’re gonna do what they do anyway, they’re just gonna do it somewhere else.
I didn’t really expect the way people would come at us when I first got out of the academy.
I didn’t really expect the way people would come at us when I first got out of the academy. I knew a lot of people don’t like police, but experiencing it was a different thing. I remember one day early on. My partner and I were doing foot patrol and we heard on the radio that one of the sergeants and one of the senior officers stopped a car a couple of blocks over. When we got there, they had the driver in cuffs sitting on the curb. One officer was with the guy and the other was searching the car. Both of the officers were white. My partner was my age and black.
Of course the whole neighborhood was out there watching. They didn’t know what’s going on, but for them, they just saw a guy driving and then the police stopped him and searched his car.
We heard people saying, “Why y’all harassing a black man? These people out here selling drugs and killing each other but y’all pulling him over and searching his car.”
The crowd started getting larger and larger. Some people started to come toward us at the car. We tried to push them back, tell them everything’s cool, and keep everybody calm. I was trying to calm down the driver, who was upset, and just talking to people. But really I didn’t know what’s going on, because I had just gotten there. I didn’t think the situation was going to blow up.
But then some guy standing on his porch threw a water bottle at us. My partner and I went over to him but by the time we got there he’d already gone inside the house. When we got back to the car, I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden it turned into an all-out brawl. Us against the neighborhood. A big-ass fuckin’ fight between the four of us and like 30 or 40 people.
It happened fast. From the time we got there to the time backup arrived was maybe five minutes. We ended up locking three people up.
I don’t wanna do this shit no more. If America weren’t in the state that it’s in, I would still wanna do it. But being that there’s pretty much nationwide hatred for police — that doesn’t sit well for me. And I don’t see things getting better in my lifetime. It’s gonna take decades and decades of rebuilding. There are still open wounds and visible scars from the shit that happened back in the '50s and '60s.
When Ferguson happened, initially I was thinking that it wouldn’t be everybody versus the police or black people against police, but more of a race thing. I was expecting it to be black people against white supremacy. But it was an avalanche against police.
After that, everything started getting publicized, with the police brutality or alleged police brutality-type incidents. Some incidents of force are justified. But some of them are officers doing dumb shit. And every time I saw another video: Aw shit. This is about to be bad for police all over. Here we go again.
I didn’t read the DOJ report on Baltimore city police, but I figure I know what’s in there.
I started noticing the shift, especially on social media. That’s all you see on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. I saw this post this morning on Instagram saying weed is safer than police. And I was like, it’s kinda true.
I didn’t read the DOJ report on Baltimore city police, but I figure I know what’s in there. Once you get out of the academy and get out on the streets, there’s a norm and you get conditioned to see certain stuff. So to you, you might not be thinking you’re violating anybody’s rights because your field-training officer has been doing it that way and your supervisor who has been there 15 years has been doing it that way.
My first couple of months in, I watched an officer chase somebody down. The guy was selling drugs and when the officer caught him, the guy swallowed the heroin he had. The officer stuck his fingers down the guy’s throat, but the guy was still trying to get up and run. So the officer put his gun in the guy’s mouth and told him to stop fuckin’ moving or he was going to shoot.
It didn’t cross my mind to report it. Not that I think that’s how it should be handled. Some officers just kind of operate in that gray area sometimes. Sometimes the gray area will lead to the biggest results in terms of guns or drugs or certain stats that certain supervisors are looking for. When it comes to something like police work, you’re not only responsible for your own life and safety but also for the life and safety of the people you work with, so that makes the bond stronger. And if one of y’all gets in a fight, everybody else does too. So it’s tough when somebody witnesses something and they want to speak up against it. You feel like if you do speak up, you’ll end up looking like the bad guy. Now people don’t want to talk to you. Yeah, morally you stood up for something you believed in, but at the end of the day you’re just left out there to look stupid. It creates a hostile work environment. And if nothing even happens to the person you spoke up against, it’s almost like, what’s the point?
I’m still surprised that nobody got convicted for Freddie Gray dying. Freddie Gray got hurt and ended up dying and nobody’s being held accountable for it. And that’s where I think a lot of frustration happens. That’s where I get the outrage. When somebody fucks up, you just have to say I’m sorry. People get comfort knowing that somebody will be held accountable.
I was in Florida on vacation with my friends when the cops got killed in Baton Rouge. I kept thinking about how it could’ve been me, could’ve been anybody in my academy class, anybody I work with now.
It’s to the point where you pretty much know that the incidents in Dallas and Baton Rouge aren’t gonna be the only incidents. At the same time, you’re hoping it doesn’t turn into an all-out war between civilians and police. I get tired of seeing the stuff on the news. I want to go to work, come home, and be in one piece, rather than worry about whether somebody who hates police will take my life from me just because I’m in a uniform. I took an oath and I put on the uniform knowing that I may need to risk my life in order to save another. It's not an easy job. And, it's not even one that you enjoy doing after a while. Sometimes I feel like the only things I’m happy about are my days off.
If somebody says fuck the police or something like that, I stop them and say, "If I didn’t have this uniform and I came up and said what’s up, you’d say what’s up back. We’d probably be cool." If I saw you at the basketball court, we’d probably hoop and be cool and maybe be friends. But because of this uniform, it’s not like that. I don't have all of answers. Honestly, I might not have any of them. What I do know is that the uniform doesn't make or define the man that I am.