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  January 31, 2017

Trump Not the Only Obstacle to Baltimore Consent Decree


In Episode 3 of The Real Baltimore, a panel of officers and activists dissect the federal consent decree seeking true police reform and debating its prospects for success
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Trump Not the Only Obstacle to Baltimore Consent DecreeTAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham, and I'm the host of The Real Baltimore.

It's a sweeping agreement whose consequences remain unclear. I'm talking about the Consent Decree between Baltimore and the Department of Justice, outlining a plan for police reform. The deal came after a damning report by the Department of Justice outlining decades of racist and unconstitutional policing tactics. And some say it was rushed, to get ahead of the Trump Administration and their controversial pick to lead the agency, Alabama Senator, Jeff Sessions. Sessions has been accused of racial bias and has been publicly skeptical of civil rights laws. And since Trump's inauguration, the Justice Department has delayed a critical court hearing on the Agreement.

But the big question is, what's in it? And what, if anything, will it accomplish? And with Baltimore again on record pace for violence, how do you overhaul a department grappling with a surge in crime? To help me answer that, are four guests with a wealth of experience in both policing and police accountability: Sgt. Lewis Hopson was the lead plaintiff in a landmark civil rights lawsuit against the department. Lt. Steven Tabeling served in the city's Homicide Unit, and was Chief of Police of Salisbury, and Marvin Doc Cheatham is the former President of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. He was part of the lawsuit against the city, along with the ACLU over zero tolerance policing, and our Kim Brown is a reporter for The Real News Network.

Thank you all for joining us. But before we start our discussion, we have a short package to watch, to give us an overview of what's going on right now with the Consent to Create Process from our investigative reporter, Stephen Janis.

STEPHEN JANIS: At a hastily arranged press conference this week, amid a surge of violence, an impassioned Baltimore Police Commissioner, Kevin Davis, tells a tale of a recent car jacking.

KEVIN DAVIS: Yesterday in our central district, our police officers stopped two cars. One was a stolen car, and one was a car-jacked car. And those cars had been recently car-jacked and stolen. Inside those two cars were a 25-year-old, a 20-year-old, a 17-year-old, a 16-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 13-year-old and a 12-year-old. What in the world is a 12-year-old doing, hanging out with a 25, or a 20-year-old? That is unacceptable.

STEPHEN JANIS: Young teens employed by older adults to commit violent crimes, it's a crime spree that presents just one of the many dilemmas facing the city. In light of a 200 plus page Consent Decree, just negotiated with the Department of Justice to reform policing in Baltimore. Since former Attorney General Loretta Lynch came to the city earlier this month to announce the agreement, questions have swirled, not just around what's in it, but will it work?

LORETTA LYNCH: And we are at the beginning of this process as the Mayor noted. And we have no illusions that change is easy, or that it comes about overnight. We all know better.

STEPHEN JANIS: The concerns are two-fold. Can a department accused of systemic racism and the violation of constitutional rights, implement any type of reform with the same staff that caused the problems in the first place? And will the Trump Administration intervene before any real progress is made?

The Agreement itself is extensive, along with recommendations for more training and monitoring of police contact with civilians. It seeks to restrict minor arrests, like failure to obey, and loitering, to define the city's crime-fighting strategies for decades. It also calls for a yet to be unnamed federal monitor to keep tabs on the progress. The problem -- much of these reforms depend upon the people who implemented the problematic strategies in the first place: mid-level supervisors, who are still there, and will remain, which is why advocates say success is far from guaranteed.

MAN: I suppose it's a situation of whether we're optimists or pessimists about this, and any relationship, if you look at a relationship and say, "Well, you keep doing the same thing." And the person says, "But I want to change." So, some people will give them the opportunity of making that transition.

STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis, reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore.

TAYA GRAHAM: So, let me go around the table and find out people's thoughts on the good, the bad, and ugly in the Consent Decree. Doc Cheatham, I'd like to ask you first. What's your take on the Consent Decree?

DOC CHEATHAM: My take reminds me of a speech in '63 from Dr. King, that America was being charged with writing a check with insufficient funds. To have a Consent Decree, when at the outset, the city and the police department are saying, "We accept no blame, no responsibility." And it already has a record of not living up to the Agreement. I was a plaintiff in the illegal lawsuit case. Baltimore City and the police department did not live up to the Agreement. Why would we think that a Consent Decree is going to have the city and the police department do something that they don't even admit that they did?

To me it's really an injustice. What we should have is receivership. The police department should be taken over by receivership. We can neither trust the city, nor the police department. And they already have a record with a prior case, the illegal arrest case, that they cannot be trusted.

TAYA GRAHAM: Sgt. Hopson, what are your thoughts on the Consent Decree?

LEWIS HOPSON: Well, I'm in complete agreement with Doc Cheatham. I think Doc Cheatham hit the nail on the head. The accountability factor, is to me, the most main part. Who's going to be held accountable for this? We have the same commanders in place that we had when these things were going on. So, we're leaving them to try to fix the problem that they created. And it has to be somebody held accountable. These many violations, we're talking about criminal behavior, somebody needs to go to jail, somebody to me, in my opinion; not only the accountability factor, but the implementation of this Consent Decree.

I think it's really astounding that we have such a... the strongest Consent Decree in the nation, but no one is held accountable for this. Now, who's going to be held accountable for putting this into place? We have a very new and a young City Council, who really don't even know how the inner workings of the police department work. We have a vast majority of citizens who don't understand the inner workings of the police department. Before we can get to fixing something, we've got to know what the problems are.

TAYA GRAHAM: Lt. Tabeling, I'd really like to know your opinion on the Consent Decree.

STEVEN TABELING: You cannot go out on the street and make a proper evaluation of a situation, unless you know the law. And I'm not only talking about Baltimore City Police Department. I think all around the country that all our police departments need to be upgraded in the law -- especially, in the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments to the United States Constitution. It's not strong enough. I have all the clippings here from the Decree, and I don't see anything with any strong emphasis on the law.

TAYA GRAHAM: So, are you saying that if police officers were properly trained in the Constitution, and how to follow the law, we wouldn't need this Consent Decree right now?

STEVEN TABELING: Well, what I'm saying is, if it had of been proper training and proper direction, that I don't think that we'd have needed this Consent Decree, because I think the police officers would have been properly trained to know how to do and what to do. You know, the most important Amendments that these officers have to know are the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments to the Constitution.

A lawyer goes to college for seven years. We bring people into the Baltimore Police Department, they could have been truck drivers or anything else, and in 26 weeks we have to teach them to compete with the top nine legal minds in this country, and also to compete with defense attorneys will all that education. And we have a lot of officers with GED's, so the best thing we can do is scenario-type training, which I'm an advocate of, and I did much of it. But unfortunately I don't think our Police Academy, or the directors of the Police Academy, see that issue.

TAYA GRAHAM: It sounds like your proposals are really reasonable, that it's teaching the Constitution. It's doing training. It's role-playing to ensure that officers know how to perform an interrogation properly. My question is, when a police officer does an unconstitutional arrest, violates someone's civil liberties, what type of action should happen?

That's an illegal action if a police officer violates someone's civil liberties. Should they be held responsible? Should their commanding officer be held responsible? Who's to blame?

STEVEN TABELING: Well, I've been retired a long time, and I can only go back to when Commissioner Donald Palmer was here, and every supervisor was accountable for all his men, and for whatever they do. And we used to do things like, roll call training and things like that, to bring the men and women up to where they belong. They do nothing like that anymore. And if a person violates someone's rights, absolutely, there should be something that should be done.

Internal investigation, this is just my opinion; I'm not inside now. But I heard this gentleman say that, to some of the commanders, and I have to agree with him. Some of the things that I see, and some of the things that I read, it just seems to me that there could be a complete lack of supervision out on our streets.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, let me just turn to our reporter, Kim Brown here, because in Prince George's County they've already had this Consent Decree. As a matter of fact, they had it with our Commissioner, Kevin Davis. So, maybe we're looking a little bit at Baltimore's future here with this Consent Decree. Could you tell us a little bit about the results of that Consent Decree in Prince George's?

KIM BROWN: Well, PG County Police were under Department of Justice, somewhat oversight for almost ten years. The DOJ initiated their initial investigation into complaints of excessive force by Prince George's County Police. Also there were several suspects who died while in custody of the police after altercations with police.

So, this investigation went for about three to five years, and after the investigation was wrapped, there were two Consent Decrees that were issued for PG County at the same time: one of them dealing with the state of the police department across the county; and then the other specifically for their canine unit, which was interesting in itself. Because the unit had a lot of excessive force complaints against it. They had, I believe, 800 bites of people over a seven-year period.

TAYA GRAHAM: That's incredible.

KIM BROWN: To the point where PG County Police were, in effect, letting their dogs just loose on suspects -- didn’t matter if they were fleeing, didn't matter if they were hiding, didn't matter if they were resisting, they were getting attacked by dogs. And the DOJ stepped in, came up with both of these Consent Decrees, and the other one was the MOA, the Memorandum of Action, against the force department-wide.

And even after the investigation and the Consent Decrees came out, the police department itself was still under independent oversight, ranging from 2004 and 2009. So, this was a very lengthy process. So, what we're seeing come out of Baltimore, is the beginning stages of what we saw come out of PG County. But in a similar action though, because there were no criminal charges, or anything filed against police during the course of the DOJ investigation.

But since there have been police who have been sentenced for excessive force. Most recently there was an officer who was sentenced to five years in State prison for pulling a gun on an unarmed resident; holding this gun to this gentleman's head, threatening to shoot him, because his car was parked in front of a space that the police felt he didn't have a right to be parked in front of.

So, there's been at least some will on behalf of the county prosecutors, to go after some police who engaged in excessive force. But I have to say, that incident I'm talking about, was also caught on video tape, so that probably had a lot to do with why a case and a subsequent, you know, conviction even came out of that to begin with.

TAYA GRAHAM: And you brought up something I think is really important, which is the idea of an independent monitor. Now, Doc, you won an incredibly... it's a landmark civil rights law suit, with the ACLU against the Baltimore Police Department because of zero tolerance, which was in an unconstitutional and illegal action against Baltimore city residents on a regular basis. Now, with an independent monitor was appointed, did it help? Did it work? What happened? What were the results there?

DOC CHEATHAM: It helped, but the problem was, and I guess those of us with the ACLU and NAACP we, not having the real experience of having won such a landmark law suit, didn't realize that we still had work to do once we won the case. And that's where here now we have the consent, what I am suggesting very strongly, and I'm hoping the Mayor and the City Council will hear me, is what we need is a monitor of the monitor. The monitor we had, came from the University of Maryland. And while for the most part, you know, he did what was requested in the agreement -- everything was not adhered to. The City of Baltimore didn't do all that they should have done.

The Police Department most assuredly fought through, and continue to fight through, the whole process. So, what we need, is a civilian group of folks, not necessarily going to be going along to get along, but will monitor the monitor, to make certain that everything that is, in fact, in that Consent Decree, is in fact, implemented. What we also did not do, and I ended up leaving the NAACP because I ended up taking over Reverend Sharpton's groups. So, I take some responsibility that we didn't follow through, and look closely at what was doing.

What also has to be done is, significant enhancement of the Civilian Review Board. We need the ability for our residents to be able to go, not to the police station where the officer probably violated their constitutional right. We need the ability for civilians to be able to go anywhere that has been instructed, to file complaints against the police. And at the end of the day, we must do better as citizens. We don't necessarily need to point the entire finger at the police department. There are things that we need to do better.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, Sgt. Hopson, let me ask you something. In 2010, you also won a landmark civil rights lawsuit, and it was based on racial discrimination within the police department. So, my question to you is, if there's racial discrimination within the police department, how can we expect the police officers to deal fairly out in the community, when they're policing a black community?

LEWIS HOPSON: Sometimes I think Doc has it right, too. I think there's a lot of emphasis should be placed on what he said. We had a monitor in our case also.

TAYA GRAHAM: Uh huh.

LEWIS HOPSON: But what we failed to do is, also to have someone monitor that monitor from out of DC. And this is out of the court decision. So, meanwhile we're asking the people who commit the crimes and commit these unlawful acts to monitor themselves, basically because they work hand-in-hand with the monitor. The monitor wants to keep the good will of the command staff, because that way they have access to certain materials and things.

The bottom line to all this is plain and simple, we can't fix this problem ourselves. We can sugarcoat it. We can play around with it. We can dance around with it. But the same people who are in power, who caused this, you know, are there still making decisions. You know, liken it to somebody's who's an addict, and as an addict, you know, you're trying to get help. And you said, "No, I can fix myself." Well, you need help. You can't fix yourself.

We've been going through this for decades, and each decade, you know, the same thing is said over and over again. We keep asking the people that are in power to fix the problem. And you can't fix this problem. I really believe, and this may sound a little strong, but I really believe the Baltimore City Police Department must be dissolved. And this clumsy model that we have now, it's just out of step and out of touch with today's society. Now, there are going to be people that say, "No, we need the police department." Yes, we do need a police department, but we need a police department that's fair, that's just, that's diverse, and that has good training and quality.

I agree somewhat with my good Lt., when he was on the police department, there was a sense of integrity, and there was a sense of training, and there was a sense of loyalty to the citizens. That's long gone. The police department that he knows, and that a lot of veterans know, is no longer there. What you have now is, a lying to the public about clearance rates; a lying to the public about any number of things is real. I'm embarrassed, as a police officer for 36 years, that we have a Consent Decree that is the worst in the nation.

These are violations of the law. This is a violation of the law. If somebody goes out here and shoplifts, we will put that person in jail. Here, these breaks in the law, there's no accountability. Oh well, you know it's just... Don't pay too much attention to it.

TAYA GRAHAM: Let me ask you then. So, if a commanding officer, and let me give you an example. This was in the Department of Justice report: there was a female police officer who was a whistle-blower. She was ordered to clear a street corner. She said it was unconstitutional. She told her supervisor she wouldn't do it. She was denied overtime. She was denied bonuses. When she asked her supervisor about it, he said, "Well, you didn't make your quota."

So, not only is our policing statistics driven, commanding officers are ordering their police officers to have unconstitutional, illegal actions. Should a command level officer like that be held to account? Should they face criminal charges, for essentially ordering their officers to perform illegal activities?

LEWIS HOPSON: Well, at first, I think you have to look at it several ways. One, what you just stated is still going on today. It's happening in the Southwest District. I know, because you know I'm the Chairman of Board of Vanguard Justice Society, which is a black police officers' organization. So, I receive a lot of complaints from officers throughout various parts of the department. And yes, it's still going on today where they want quotas, numbers.

TAYA GRAHAM: Uh huh.

LEWIS HOPSON: And this is the only measuring stick that they have, or they believe they have. That's why I say we're out of step in today's society, and how to effectively police our community and not working with our community to solve many areas and problems.

Now, whistle-blowers, we shouldn't have to have whistle-blowers, because we should be doing the right thing. But we're not doing the right thing, and I just think the accountability is not just on the police officers, but the accountability has to be on city hall, the Mayor. It has to be on the city council people to oversee and know what's going on in the various police departments in their districts, and know the things that they need to know. They should have somebody that they can call up and say, "Hey, Sgt. Hopson, what's going on in the district?"

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

LEWIS HOPSON: And be able to account for a lot of things that are going on now. We have some real serious issues here.

TAYA GRAHAM: Yes, we do. So, let me ask another question. You mentioned the real serious issues. We've had an incredible spike in violence, and we know that more juveniles are being involved in violence, being brought into it by older adults. So, when you have a city that's so violent, and some would say it's because the community is economically depressed, can you police effectively in a community that is economically depressed? What would you say, Doc?

DOC CHEATHAM: I think we have to. I don't think it's an option. You know, we're not going to be able to turn around the disparities that many of our communities reside in. I happen to live in the Sandtown-Winchester area, between Sandtown-Winchester and Holland Park. There's no worse three communities that have as many problems as we do. We have to find solutions. The solutions aren't necessarily all with city hall. They're not all with the police department. A significant part of that are our communities, our families, you know, these individuals that, unfortunately, brought us to the point that we're having one homicide a day, you know, this month already.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

DOC CHEATHAM: These folks aren't coming from other states. These are our sons and daughters that are committing these crimes.

TAYA GRAHAM: Is there anything in the Consent Decree that is viable, that is good, that you're glad to see? Do you see anything in the Consent Decree that you like?

LEWIS HOPSON: Baltimore is unique. I call it a city of villages, and every village has its unique background, ethnic and otherwise. You have to have foot patrolmen in there that understand those people in that neighborhood. We're policing now by plain-clothes squads. We're supposed to be proactive not reactive.

TAYA GRAHAM: Uh huh.

LEWIS HOPSON: You have more plain-clothes squads out on that street than I've ever seen. You know, I can't verify this, but I've been told there are squads that have as many as 65 people in them. You don't prevent crime by having plain-clothes squads. Your uniform is your backbone of any police department. And until we get away from some of these commissioners coming in here and thinking that plain-clothes is going to solve the problems. They're wrong, you cannot police that way. We had the best homicide squad in the United States in the 1970's, with 90% clearance rates and 90% conviction rates.

TAYA GRAHAM: That’s incredible.

LEWIS HOPSON: They're 30% now. So, what do you attribute that to -- lack of experience, lack of proper training, lack of direction. I'm going to agree with him on one thing, I think that our command staff has a lot to be desired. But, you know, this has been my gripe for a long time.

DOC CHEATHAM: I take issue. I take issue with this.

LEWIS HOPSON: Okay.

DOC CHEATHAM: I take issue because, one of the problems we have, is the statement that you made. Your statement was that they understand those people. No. What they need to do is, they need to understand the communities that they live in, and that's a part of the problem. We have people that don't live here, that don't look like the residents of the communities that they're policing. So, you have an automatic disconnect.

That doesn't necessarily mean that these great men and women of all ethnicities can't police the communities that they're in, but this police force that we have now, don't even live here. They don't look like the community. They don't appreciate and respect the culture of the communities that they're working in. So, you make the statement right. You said, understand those people. No, they need to be able to understand and respect the communities that they live in.

LEWIS HOPSON: And maybe I said the wrong word, sir, but what I really meant was to protect everyone in that area regardless, and to understand some of the backgrounds of some of the individual neighborhoods that we have. And I can't see how we can do it without having someone in there that can have that understanding and have the proper training. That's all I'm trying to say.

DOC CHEATHAM: You know the area that you asked that question about, the juveniles?

TAYA GRAHAM: Uh huh.

DOC CHEATHAM: I think we need to start there. For... I ran a juvenile booking for the last several years, 10 or 12 years, and the target age being those juveniles who were out here committing crimes against the community was 16 to 17. And then I've watched it over the years get down, and today it's between 11 and 12 years of age. People are under the misconception that older adults are bringing these young kids in to commit crimes. No, they're not. These young kids, 11, 12 years old are out here committing crimes, many of them come from broken homes.

There's nobody in the community -- I've interviewed just about every child that comes through there, and I talk to them. And I see exactly what actually is going on with them in their lives and different things. It's embarrassing, but I have to say this, there are no fathers in their lives. I can count on one hand how many times I've seen a black father come in and sign for their child. And you know, have a conversation with them and still have fingers left over. And it used to be the mothers who'd come in and sign for their child and we'd set up some kind of program for them.

TAYA GRAHAM: Uh huh.

DOC CHEATHAM: Then it got to be with the grandmothers that would come in. And then it's... now it was the aunts, and now we're in that transitional period where it's maybe a friend of the family. And now we're bringing in police officers from all over, from Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, different places, and they have no idea, no concept of the culture, of the communities.

This is not going to be resolved, unless everybody has a seat at the table, an equal seat. Not a paternalistic type of attitude, and that's what we have at the police department now. We're the parent, you're the child and we're going to tell you what's good for you. And you can't do that. You can't tell me how to live in my neighborhood. See, I live in the city and I'm a stakeholder and I know what goes on there. I go through the same thing that most citizens go through.

When I see a guy with a gun, I call the police and I had to call eight, nine, ten times when an officer comes through there, if they come through there. You know? They're going to tell you it doesn't happen -- I'm in the community, I know it happens.

TAYA GRAHAM: It seems that we are getting some solutions here. You're saying that officers should live in the community. You're saying that officers need to know the law. They need to know the Constitution. So, it doesn't seem like people are very happy with what's in the Consent Decree.

Did you see anything that was viable, Kim? Is there anything in the Consent Decree that you might think is useful, or you would suggest that would be helpful to the Baltimore City Police Department?

KIM BROWN: Well, I certainly don't want to say that the Consent Decree was a waste of time, but in a sense it sort of is, because I'm not really sure who this Consent Decree is for. I'm not sure if this is for the citizens of Baltimore, who have already known that these things have been happening for decades now, for generations. And I don't think that even the issuance of this Consent Decree does anything to restore confidence in the community about how the police will engage with them going forward, whether or not the Department of Justice is involved; whether or not it's under President Obama, or President Donald Trump.

People in Baltimore expect the police to be the way they have always been, and that is not adhering to their civil rights, to their constitutional rights. And I don't think that the issuance of this Consent Decree is going to stymie that, or stem that in any way, because at the end of the day, as all these gentlemen have said here, it's about accountability, and there is no methodology of accountability within the Consent Decree.

And you and I had this conversation, Taya, about how the DOJ is even able to come in to Baltimore and conduct these investigations. They say, "Well, we're going to come into your house. We're going to peek around and everything that we find that's illegal, well, you guys aren't going to be held accountable for." Well, tell me where else in the world does it go down like that -- nowhere else, because if the police have search warrants for your own home and they find something that's illegal, they're going to pin it on you. So, again it's another instance of how no one is policing the police.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

KIM BROWN: And the police get to still operate in, sort of nefarious ways, and unconstitutional ways, and nothing happens to them.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right. They're not held to the same account that your average citizen is.

KIM BROWN: Absolutely not, and that ruins the amount of faith that people would have in the police. This is why people don't like to call the police. If it can be at all avoided, they won't call them for their assistance because they're not sure what the outcome will be, whether or not it will be favorable, or in their favor.

DOC CHEATHAM: ... I have to agree with that. But I also have to agree with saying this, we keep talking about the 11 and 12 and the problems that we're having now. We're going to have a lot more problems. And you know, I said this about 10, 12 years ago. It's called the Frankenstein theory, and basically what that means is... It's a phrase that was coined by Dr. Powers. It's the young people that have been locked away in the community, that have been in the basement, that we've failed to educate them. We failed to give them a decent job and we treat them, as you see they're being treated right now. They can't play on the playground without being locked up. They can't go anywhere, in theory everything that they've gotten.

So, that monster that they helped create, and they left in the basement, now has worked his way upstairs, out in the neighborhood, and now he's in your backyard, and now he's tearing up the city. And now you're crying, "Oh, we need to do this and we need to do that." No, Mr. Commissioner, we need to fire you because Mr. Deputy Commissioner, we need to definitely fire you.

TAYA GRAHAM: And one of the things here, if I can get any sort of consensus, is that we need police officers to become stakeholders in the community. I think that's something...

PETER TABLING: Even if they're not stakeholders, you know? And I understand that there's a lot of, you know... Police are very strange creatures. You know, they really are. They really are some very strange creatures.

DOC CHEATHAM: Yes, scary.

PETER TABLING: They truly, truly are. I have a vested interest. You don't see the police, other than a few of us, that's vested in this community. They live in Pennsylvania. They live way up there in Hartford County somewhere. They're not vested, and I'm not saying that because you live somewhere else, that you can't do a decent job. But nobody lives in the city. Our command staff doesn't live in the city.

TAYA GRAHAM: Uh huh.

PETER TABLING: You know? You're not a stakeholder here. You know, you just feed this information to the community, you know, and it's just garbage.

TAYA GRAHAM: I'm sorry, Lt. Hopson?

LEWIS HOPSON: No, no. Just one thing, and what he's saying is what I'm against about bringing police commissioners in from out of town. Yeah, we promote commissioners from within the department, but a lot of times we do not do it on ability. We do it because of political friendships and things.

I can show a lot of people in this police department, you know... I worked with a couple guys in the Training Academy, they should be majors but they're not even sergeants. I mean something's wrong with that. These are people that live here. They were born and raised here. They're highly intelligent people, but when the time comes to go up, no.

TAYA GRAHAM: I'm going to continue to report on police accountability and The Real News is going to continue and look for solutions. This is Taya Graham and I'm the host of The Real Baltimore.

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