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TRNN’s Stephen Janis discusses how the killing of Freddie Gray continues to have consequences at city hall

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. In breaking news, the mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has announced she’s not running for reelection next year. Now joining me to discuss this is our investigative journalist Stephen Janis. STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Thanks for having me, appreciate it. NOOR: So Stephen, you were in that room right behind us in City Hall where the mayor made her announcement. What did she say? JANIS: Well, it was a stunning announcement, first of all. I mean, I don’t think anybody at City Hall or anyone who covers City Hall expected the mayor to drop out of the race. She’s been a very competitive politician, has run consistently, been on the City Council since 1995. And of course her family has a storied tradition here in Baltimore. So we really didn’t think she was going to do this. But it seemed sometimes quasi-emotional, sometimes I don’t know, but she said basically that she will be stepping down, or not running, because she wants to spend A, more time with her family, and B, focusing on governing the city through what will be a very difficult set of trials in the Freddie Gray case, and the federal investigation of the police department. So basically it was a twofold reason which was, number one, I have a teenage daughter who’s in school and I want to spend time with, and two, we are going through some very difficult times in this city and I need to pay full attention to governing the city. NOOR: And how do these issues–the key issues during her administration including crime, which she had highlighted a drop in crime until this year in which the city’s experienced record crime. You’re talking about police accountability. Again, the mayor has said since the events in April, the killing of Freddie Gray, that there’s been fewer complaints and the issue has improved. Can you talk about those two issues. JANIS: Well, here’s–you have sort of a dividing line in her governance, which is prior to the Freddie Gray incident she was running the narrative that the police department is improving. We’ve got Anthony Batts, former Commissioner Anthony Batts who was fired, is a reformer. We’re making inroads into improving the relationship with the police commissioner–I’m sorry, the police department. There are fewer complaints. And that narrative was sort of ongoing and unchallenged. And then once Freddie Gray happened and Freddie Gray died in police custody it seemed like everything changed. The previous sort of lowest level of homicides, I think we went down to like, 199 in 2011 under the mayor, suddenly shot up to 46 percent over the year before, and we had two record months, July and August, that pretty much took that whole crime record and narrative story that she’d been building and tore it apart. And then of course with the Freddie Gray incident Baltimore was on the national stage as the example of police dysfunction. The police brutality in Baltimore was rampant, was the narrative. So the two sort of compelling narratives she had started to sort of cultivate in City Hall suddenly fell apart to such an extreme, I think, that she was facing a daunting political task, being reelected. NOOR: And also we’ve covered and you’ve highlighted the issue of development. About creating jobs, about opportunities. She’s highlighted the approach of giving tax breaks to developers that will build around the harbor, and she’s met stiff opposition to those policies by some of the city council members that will be challenging her. JANIS: That’s a great point. I mean, the mayor embraced Harbor Point, which was a $100 million tax break, a vehicle she has called the TIF, which basically means the developer doesn’t have to pay taxes for almost 15 to 20 years on the property. She has been a huge proponent, along with her predecessor Martin O’Malley and Sheila Dixon of these tax breaks downtown. And when the Freddie Gray incident occurred and sort of the national spotlight was on Baltimore, people took a hard look at those tax breaks, and sort of said, this is one of the reasons that you have two Baltimores. Because the city and the mayor and people have been emphasizing tax breaks for downtown developers, tax breaks around the Inner Harbor. But what do they do in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood? So I think it only exacerbated her new image, which is a mayor who was somewhat incompetent, and also out of touch, and also really in bed with developers and offering tax breaks to people who really didn’t need them. And matter of fact, a little known tax break she gave to people who build apartment complexes of over 20 units basically didn’t have to pay taxes for 15 years, and that was all over the city. So she really has been a proponent of strong policing, investment in policing, and tax breaks. And I think that whole paradigm fell apart when Freddie Gray died in police custody. NOOR: And it’s not like she’s not aware of these issues. I remember last year, it was about a year ago, there was a town hall about police accountability, how do we keep from Baltimore being the next Ferguson. It was a few weeks after the events in Ferguson, and the issue of police accountability was raised. Marilyn Mosby spoke out. And you had a sitting police detective saying there are police officers on the force that I warn my own kids about. I don’t let them go out by the city by themselves. And so she’s aware of this for a long time and she hasn’t acted. So this was an opportunity squandered for this city. JANIS: I mean, that’s the real vexing question about her tenure, is that she had been on the council since 1995. She was well aware of continuing problems. She was on the council during zero tolerance, which obviously was an extremely unpopular policy in the African-American community. She was on the council when police brutality cases were being brought up by community activists. And she even said, I remember at one press conference, that we’re only one incident away from being another Ferguson. So she was well aware of all the sort of structural and organizational problems that the police department had. She knew everything, and yet you have to scratch your head and wonder what was actually going on. Was the city managing this process, was the mayor involved? I mean, obviously looking into what occurred since it seems like nothing was done. So I think she was facing a pretty big task of being [reelected]. One thing she mentioned was very interesting. One of the press corps asked her, you know, how are you doing in the polls? Do the polls have anything to do with this? And she admitted, she said since the rise in crime–she didn’t say Freddie Gray, but since the rise in crime our poll numbers have dipped. And I’ve heard from various sources that she is polling almost last in terms of, against Mayor–I’m sorry, some of the other candidates. NOOR: So that raises the question, now that she’s stepped back as the incumbent, the leading candidate, or perhaps even not the leading candidate but obviously a favorite to win with a pretty sizable war chest and the ability to raise some serious money, who’s stepping up next? JANIS: So I would say, obviously the frontrunner would be Sheila Dixon just based on her name recognition. NOOR: She’s a former mayor who stepped down. JANIS: Yes. Excuse me. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon would be the number one frontrunner. But let’s look at it this way. With Blake–Mayor Dixon, former Mayor Dixon was part of the same machine that produced Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, that’s the O’Malley legacy. O’Malley became mayor in 1999. Martin O’Malley is currently a presidential candidate. And he since, pretty much put Dixon in power, and Dixon in turn put Blake in power. And maybe Mayor Dixon will suffer from this break where we’re looking and saying that whole 15-year legacy has been discredited by the events of the present. So then you might have someone like Carl Stokes who just announced, who is a councilman in the 12th District, who has been a major, major, major opponent of tax breaks. And then you have Catherine Pugh, who’s extremely popular, I think, not so much known for her political maneuverings in Baltimore, but a popular state senator. And then of course you have State Delegate Jill Carter. This could really open the way for her. She’s someone who really has been outspoken about police brutality, was one of the few city politicians who would say anything about zero tolerance under the O’Malley administration. So this could really open the door for her. So I think this opens the door for outsider candidates. But yeah, now this field–I would say Sheila Dixon, slight advantage. But not really given that her legacy is tied to this legacy, and I think the mayor’s saying, you know, I can’t run on what I did. NOOR: Now, would any of these candidates, will they potentially change some of the structural, address some of the structural issues that the mayor seems to be unable or unwilling to address? JANIS: I think that’s the huge question of this entire election. All of these issues have been percolating for years. Police brutality, tax breaks for developers, emphasis on Downtown and ignoring other neighborhoods. The two Baltimores, the intractable poverty. All these issues have sort of bubbled under the surface, because the O’Malley regime, and the O’Malley administration, really set the tone and said, you know, we’re not going to talk about this. I’m running for President. We’re just going to make it seem like Baltimore’s good. Now, now that is broken. I mean, there’s not going to be any machine candidate. No one–let’s remember that Mayor Rawlings-Blake is tied to O’Malley. So now that sort of agenda-setting context is gone. And I think this is a unique opportunity in the history of the city for people to address some of those structural problems. To literally make it an election. I think someone will be able to really formulate a campaign running against all of that, against that idea of strong policing and tax breaks downtown, and whatever happens I think someone could actually mount a campaign, a successful campaign now saying look what she did, she walked away. We need to totally change the dialog. And I think that’s possible. NOOR: And the death of Freddie Gray has definitely put those issues to the forefront for many people in this city. JANIS: You know, for years you as a reporter, myself, we’ve reported about this kind of stuff. But it was the death of Freddie Gray that sort of turned the conversation. Tragic as it may be, I think it has transformed the city’s political dialog. And it certainly, it seems like now, unseated what would have been seen [as] unstoppable regime in terms of O’Malley’s running for president. Well, now he’s at 3 percent. Blake was talking, just three or four months ago when Senator Barbara Mikulski said she was retiring, who is a state senator for Maryland, she was talking about maybe running for senator. And now it seems like her career is literally over. And possibly, you know, O’Malley’s at 3 percent. So it’s a can of proverbial, a political can of worms that has transformed this city and probably marks the end of what could have been a dynasty. Maybe, [given] to many people in the city would say very troubling dynasty, but nevertheless. NOOR: Stephen Janis, thanks so much for talking to us. JANIS: Yeah, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


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Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.

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.