Another act of defiance from the last residents of Poppleton, West Baltimore’s historic, Black neighborhood, who are fighting to preserve their homes. On Nov. 1, a local artist, who asked to remain anonymous, and activists with Organize Poppleton helped residents paint a 20-foot mural that reads “SAVE OUR BLOCK. Black Neighborhoods Matter. Losing my home is like a death to me. Eminent Domain law is violent.”

The quote is from Sonia Eaddy, a third-generation Poppleton resident whose family has lived in the same house since the 1940s. Eaddy has waged a years-long campaign to preserve this Poppleton community, which dates back to the 1860s.

The words are painted on the side of Eaddy’s 321 North Carrollton Ave. property, which the city claimed from the longtime resident and community leader by exercising its rights under eminent domain. The rights to develop the neighborhood were acquired by New York-based La Cité Development, which has already built luxury apartments in the neighborhood that start at $1,925 a month for two bedrooms.

Having received $58 million in tax breaks from the city, the developer is required to make 20% of 2,800 overall housing units affordable to low-income residents. Back in July, Battleground Baltimore spoke to longtime Poppleton resident Parsha Macfadden, who has lived in her home for four decades.

“It seems like it’s not fair for the homeowners who have invested so much, whose homes have so much history and meaning for their families,” Macfadden told Battleground Baltimore

Department of Public Works “tightens up”

Baltimore City Council’s Rules and Legislation Oversight Committee held a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 4, about the Department of Public Works’ ongoing issues with correctly billing Baltimoreans for water usage.

City Councilmember Mark Conway began the hearing by mentioning “some of the problems that were plaguing our water billing system,” which included “open service tickets, broken meters,” and “breakdowns in the adjustments processes for resolving water billing problems.”

In December of last year, the Office of the Inspector General released a damning report about DPW that suggested severe mismanagement of money, a staggering number of unaddressed service requests, and many broken water meters. According to the report, 14,000 newly installed water meters were not fully operational. As Food & Water Watch said when the report was released, “that means that 7 percent of the city’s 200,000 accounts are being improperly billed.” 

DPW now has a new director, Jason Mitchell, hired in March, after former director Rudy Chow had essentially no response to the damning OIG report, which also suggested Chow had overseen some particularly reckless expenditures. 

Conway stressed that with a new director and more attention to the issue, reforms would happen, but he also highlighted just how bad DPW responsiveness remains.

“My office—and I suspect many of the offices of many of my colleagues—still get multiple new water billing issues per week that go unresolved for months. We still see adjustments that do not fully compensate for the exorbitant bills being issued, communication on the status of adjustments in water meter repairs are often lacking, and even when I personally get involved, we still see these things happen,” Conway said. “These aren’t just issues falling through the cracks. There remain systemic deficiencies that enabled these problems to persist. Reforms are only as important as their results.”

And, Conway stressed, those results were going to come through “pushing DPW.” 

For the most part, DPW explained themselves (Chow’s disastrous directorship seemed to underline every explanation), though they also pushed back. According to DPW, there were actually 6,310 service requests, not 8,000, and 5,086 have been resolved as of the end of October. Moreover, the DPW explained that the backlog was the result of COVID-19 and the 2019 ransomware attack that suspended the city’s billing system.

DPW director Mitchell tried to stay positive.

“If you look a year ago, we were responding to phone calls in three-plus minutes. As of yesterday, we responded to our calls in 58 seconds,” Mitchell said. “So we’re looking at that every day. We had 48 abandoned calls, we’re looking at that every day… when they call can we pick up? And can we be responsive and helpful? And that’s where our process is [and] where we’re trying to tighten up.”

Baltimore Tree Trust questions mayor’s commitments to nonprofits

Earlier this week, Baltimore Brew highlighted the plight of Baltimore Tree Trust, a local nonprofit whose bid to plant 3,000 trees on Baltimore’s streets was rejected. The contract was given to a for-profit, county-based group, Lorenz Inc.

Baltimore Tree Trust’s bid for the job was $946,490. Lorenz Inc. said it would cost  $1.6 million—$651,000 more. 

The contract was given to Lorenz Inc. because they were the only remaining bidder once Baltimore Tree Trust was disqualified on the grounds that they were “not in good standing” with the city. Supposedly that was because Baltimore Tree Trust did not file a corporate renewal application. But that was an error with the Minority and Women’s Business Opportunity Office’s database.

“In a city that’s trying to encourage nonprofits and NGOs to get contracts to do work in the community, employ local people and train youths, why would they turn us down for minor technicalities?” Baltimore Tree Trust Executive Director Bryant Smith said.

Due to Baltimore Brew’s reporting, Mayor Brandon Scott withdrew the city’s contract with Lorenz Inc., which was set to be approved by the Board of Estimates this week. 

In a follow-up piece, Baltimore Brew also revealed that Baltimore Tree Trust had not learned that they were rejected sooner because of a typo.

“Although the Tree Trust’s bid was disqualified on October 6, thereby paving the way for Lorenz’s higher bid to be submitted to the board, City Purchasing Agent Keasha L. Brown did not formally notify the organization until yesterday afternoon,” the Brew reported. “A review of emails by The Brew found that Brown’s office had sent an earlier notification, but it was never delivered because the Tree Trust’s email address had been spelled incorrectly.”

For some other local reporting from this week that’s very much worth your time, check out Rudy Malcom’s piece on Baltimore’s community fridge and J. Brian Charles’ piece on Mayor Brandon Scott, police funding, and violence.

Baltimore Action Legal Team responds to Mosby’s “do not call” list

Back in 2019, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that her office had a list of 305 Baltimore Police officers with integrity issues. 

Naturally, defense attorneys wanted a look at this list of ostensibly dirty cops. Baltimore Action Legal Team (BALT), a legal advocacy nonprofit created after the Baltimore Uprising that, as their website says, is “dedicated to politically-conscious lawyering and to using creative, collective solutions to support the Movement for Black Lives in Baltimore,” sued to obtain the list when Mosby’s office wouldn’t just give it to them.

“In December 2019, she identified a list of 305 officers with questionable integrity that could not be relied upon in a prosecution or a trial to obtain a conviction,” lawyer Matt Zernhelt told Battleground Baltimore. “I think it’s in the public’s interest to know what police officers have violated their trust and in any capacity.” 

Last month, after going through the courts, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that Mosby’s office must release the list. Last week, Mosby’s office released a list of 91 officers, not 305. Many in the legal world, including Zernhelt, were left wondering what happened to the 200-plus officers on the larger list—the very list BALT sued over and Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals said Mosby must release.

“We requested the list of 305 names, which existed at that point, and what has been turned over has not been 305 names. So we’re still waiting for that,” Zernhelt said. 

On top of that, the list was primarily officers whose corruption and lack of credibility was well-known. Of the 91 officers on the list, only 26 are currently working in the police department and nearly all of the officers on the list have transgressions that are already known to the public.

“We were surprised when this list of 91 officers was released. We recognize it is a list of officers with integrity issues that has been compiled. But we do find that it falls short of what we requested. We find it to be performative,” Zernhelt said. “We will continue pushing for transparency. Do we get what we’ve been fighting for all along and for what the court found the public is entitled to? These are the public records and these records being in the community benefits all.”

Disclosure: Battleground Baltimore’s Brandon Soderberg is a plaintiff along with BALT in a separate court transparency lawsuit. He did not conduct the interview with BALT’s Zernhelt.

Man shot by police in 2016 receives $240,000 settlement

A man who was shot by Baltimore Police in November 2016 had his $240,000 settlement with the city approved by the Board of Estimates this week. Richard Gibbs was shot by Officer Jeffrey Melo because other police on the scene claimed Gibbs—who was stopped for speeding and for an obliterated license plate—had a gun in his hand when he exited his car.

When Gibbs finally went to trial, however, he was found not guilty on a number of charges, including felony handgun possession, resisting arrest, and carrying and transporting a gun in a vehicle. Gibbs’ lawyer, Richard Woods—who represented rapper Young Moose, who was frequently targeted by Baltimore cop Daniel Hersl—contended that the gun the police found on Gibbs was planted. The gun was a .38 caliber revolver that was spray painted black. Police claimed that the gun had Gibbs’ DNA on it and that it was thrown in the air during the arrest, landing on the hood of Gibbs’ car. Woods questioned the police officers’ story (there were no marks on the hood from the gun) and said that Gibbs’ DNA was not found on the cartridges police said they recovered.

Gibbs was arrested on Nov. 23, 2016. When news that police had shot someone broke, Baltimore Police referred to Gibbs as a “repeat violent offender.” Gibbs went through surgery and physical therapy for injuries he received during the arrest. Meanwhile, Gibbs spent the time between his arrest and his June 2017 trial in jail before he was found not guilty on all of the major charges. He was only found guilty of driving without a license.

The investigation into the shooting (the report can be read here) revealed that police noted that the eyewitness who claimed Gibbs did not have a gun was smoking cannabis, and another witness, who said the cops entered Gibbs’ car looking for the gun (the same gun cops claimed was on the hood of the car), was drinking wine. It would seem this helped discredit their accounts. 

None of the cops present during the shooting had body-worn cameras (the roll-out of body cameras was relatively new and not all cops had them yet). The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Officer Melo for the shooting. 

Now, nearly five years after the initial arrest, Gibbs has finally received a settlement from the city.

The settlement was approved during the same Board of Estimates hearing in which nearly $759,500 in funding for the ShotSpotter technology was approved.

This week, it was also announced by the State’s Attorney’s Office that David Morris, a man found guilty of a murder in 2005, would be released after 17 years in prison. It was revealed, thanks to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the SAO’s Conviction Integrity Unit, that DNA evidence should have exonerated Morris, a key witness was unreliable, and the arresting officer, Michael Nelson, was convicted of wire fraud.

ShotSpotter contract renewed, despite ‘skeptic’ mayor

Baltimore City’s Board of Estimates voted to approve an additional $759,500 to continue the usage of ShotSpotter, gunshot detection technology that uses artificial intelligence to identify gunshots and reports the location of those gunshots. Read Battleground Baltimore’s story here.

ShotSpotter has been in use in Baltimore since 2018 and the approval of the $759,000 to extend the contract puts the total amount of money spent by the city on ShotSpotter at a little over $3 million.

Thread of the week: @OpenJusticeBaltimore on police salary

This thread from Open Justice Baltimore, radical transparency advocates responsible for, among other things, the public database of Baltimore Police officers BPD Watch, provided some updates on where police salaries are since last year. Baltimore police salaries increased by 7.3% since 2020 and “the number of officers who more than DOUBLED their take home pay with overtime has increased by 197%.”

Tweet of the week: @mariyastrauss on supporting the Farm Alliance of Baltimore

We’re just going to pretend that Leana Wen tweet didn’t happen. Anyway, the executive director of Farm Alliance of Baltimore is calling for support, so, well, consider doing so: “If you would like to become a donor whose contributions go directly to supporting programs that support urban farmers here in Baltimore, this is the link,” Strauss tweeted.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.

Brandon Soderberg is a Baltimore-based writer reporting on guns, drugs, and police corruption. He is the coauthor of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. Formerly, he was the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in The Intercept, VICE, The Appeal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.