Baltimore’s Flawed War on Drugs Destroyed Lawrence Christian’s Life Without a Conviction
A drug bust that wrongly targeted Christian reveals how the city’s continued investment in policing makes poverty worse and heightens the suffering and dysfunction of a community already wracked with violence
STEPHEN JANIS: Baltimore, is a city that appears to be caught in a vicious cycle; the result of intertwine, social ills. It is racked with both intractable poverty and unrelenting violence. But just as disturbing as the problems which inflicted, is how routinely the city returns to the same institution every time violence flares. Policing, which raises a question, why does Baltimore continue to invest more heavily in policing to alleviating violence, than addressing poverty. Even when the connection between poverty in violence, in the city, were thrust upon the nation stage in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. City officials continue to march more resources into cops than both education and recreation combined. Perhaps this apparent disconnect is fueled by omission because the story is often told by numbers, not people and how all the intricacies of our near theological emphasis on law enforcement effects them.
Which is why the tale of Lawrence Christian merits telling. Because it is through his story, that the real consequences of our pension for specific vengeance begins to makes sense. A retired steel worker, father of 5, and grandfather, who worked and lived his entire life in Baltimore. Christian is now homeless. Not because he couldn’t pay his rent but due to a drug bust gone horribly wrong.
LAWRENCE CHRISTIAN: It’s terrible, it’s really terrible. I feel like, I’ve been tossed away, you know, it’s something I didn’t do.
JANIS: We spent time with Christian last summer as we learned how his life was turned upside-down by the unintended consequences of the city’s addiction to law enforcement. The story begins here, his former home in Pleasant View Gardens. It is a tight knit subsidized housing community within a mile of the Inner Harbor. It is also where Christian raised his family and made lifelong friends. But all that changed one morning, 2 years ago with a simple knock on the door.
CHRISTIAN: He was standing right there where you was standing at. I looked out the window and see him standing out there with a package. So I come downstairs, open the door and he said, I have a package for Nigel Williams. I said Nigel Williams, don’t live here. What’s your name? I said, my name, Lawrence Christian. Then he say, well it got your address on it, won’t you sign for it and he’ll pick it up later. I said, no.
JANIS: A casually dressed man, told Christian he had a packaged as someone he didn’t know. When he refused to accept it, the man tossed it at him and left. Minutes later, officers stormed the house.
CHRISTIAN: He backed off the steps like this. Handed me the package, right? Went to the curb of Aisquith street, well that’s Aisquith street. I’m looking at him, as soon as he hit that gate all these officers came around.
JANIS: Unbeknown to him, postal inspectors in a city narcotics taskforce had intercepted a shipment of drugs addressed to a person claiming his address. And the quick delivery and subsequent raid was all police needed to label him a major drug dealer.
CHRISTIAN: This what the officer said, we know this ain’t yours. Who are you getting it for. I said, if you know that why are you here? I ain’t getting it for nobody. I don’t even know no Nigel Williams.
JANIS: Without any other evidence and no past criminal record he was charged with possession with intent to distribute a kilo of cocaine; simply because police say he accepted the package. Charges have kept him behind bars for months as his family has scraped and saved to make 100,000 dollars’ bail, which is when his life started to fall apart. And when the tale of how policing and poverty mix in unforeseen way begins. That’s because before he had his day in court, the firm which manages Christian’s apartment complex filed for an eviction. A move a judge approved. It’s a common practice a company told us. They don’t need a verdict, just charges to proceed. But it had horrible consequences for him.
CHRISTIAN: For I got to court the set me out. My rent never been late. I paid it on time. I’ve been there 17 years.
JANIS: Why did they kick you out?
CHRISTIAN: They talking bout, I had drugs coming to my house. I didn’t, my name was never on the package.
JANIS: He was forced to sleep on his daughter’s couch. His health deteriorated, he lost his teeth. So now a man that used to have a place to call home and a community to sustain him, lives on the streets of the city. So where do you live now?
CHRISTIAN: Here. I mean, well I’m out in Patapsco at the new motel for men. Well it’s a shelter, now, for men [inaudible].
JANIS: Do you have any chance of getting regular housing at this point?
CHRISTIAN: Well, I went there to a house, public housing on Pratt street, Pratt and Curry. They told me that I had to get on the waiting list. That’ll take anywhere to 3 to 4 years.
JANIS: Which is where we found him desperate, alone, and destitute. It is one of many cases I have encountered covering this city and perhaps one of the excesses which accompanies the city’s massive investment in law enforcement. An investment which continues today. Fast forward to last month. After four people were murdered over a weekend of violence, the media has called to police headquarters. There the mayor, the police commissioner, Johns Hopkins University, and a ray of nonprofits talked about grants, data, and how to spend more on policing.
STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: I think this announcement is another example of how we will continue to innovate, how we will continue to use the assets that we have here in Baltimore to make our city greater.
JANIS: But when we asked the mayor how policing was supposed to fix the problem that most of the community believes is about poverty and economic inequity; she accused us of missing the point.
RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Well, you have to understand it, you’re standing here in police headquarters, talking about a public safety initiation. You’ve been at our events where we’re talked about how, even in partnership with Johns Hopkins we are expanding job opportunities in our communities.
JANIS: Even though, when we pressed Johns Hopkins scientist Daniel Webster, about the cost of the program, he couldn’t provide specifics.
DANIEL WEBSTER: I can get back to you. But we have some funds available.
JANIS: Which is why, perhaps in a follow up interview, police commissioner, Kevin Davis conceded policing has limits.
KEVIN DAVIS: The poorest communities, the communities of color; particularly in Baltimore city that have been neglected for so long, a fix needs to happen. Now there might be debates on what that fix looks like or the priorities in implementing strategies to change those things. But at least the conversation is off the ground and people are talking about it in a thoughtful way and it’s not just the responsibility of the local police department to shoulder all the ills of society.
JANIS: Those limits were hardly apparent in Annapolis the next day when advocates and lawmakers gathered to support more civilian oversighted policing throughout the state. Including, Lawrence Grandpe from the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, who argued that without civilian oversight, meaningful reform could not happen.
LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: If you think that cops can be trusted to entirely only police themselves, I believe that’s anti-common sense.
JANIS: Those arguments fell on deaf ears among the failings of police officers gathered to fight reform. Including Maryland Police Union president Vince Canales. He told us partial civilian oversight with a disciplinary process, which is the heart of many of the proposed reforms, and common in motor cities, is not welcome.
VINCE CANALES: Well we believe that basically, it takes a law enforcement officer to know what a law enforcement officer deals with it. It’s no different than the military the way the military handles their disciplinary process. As well, as funny as it may seem, the legislature, and how they handle internal issues. We believe that, you know, an individual that basically serving should know an understanding of what an officer goes through and why an officer makes the split second decisions that they do regarding a certain situation.
JANIS: Still argument over reform or how to fix policing will do little to help Christian. After a 2-year slog of nearly a dozen court appearances he was found not guilty on all charges.
CHRISTIAN: We got there at 9:30 and when I came there Ms. Denise Winston said, the case has been thrown out.
JANIS: In part because his son spoke up in court and presiding judge Wander Heard listened.
MICHAEL CHRISTIAN: I raised my hand and asked the judge could I speak. They said no, no. I got angry and I stood up and I walked out. Then she said okay sir, go and speak. So, I let her know that he’s 65 years old. What do we have a half a kilo of cocaine coming to his house? That doesn’t even make sense. So after that, I told her that he couldn’t take us that. Then the judge was like okay, now I see why you’re mad. Then she said he cannot take us that, that will violate him. The judge told his lawyer that. So after that, the judge said I will look into this. Come back, postponed his case till the next day. So the next day, she dismissed the whole thing. The police wasn’t showing up. They postponed the case 15 times. What type of case gets postponed 15 times for 2 years? That’s a violation of his right to due process.
JANIS: But his innocence will do nothing to salvage his life or give him back his home or his teeth.
CHRISTIAN: It was completely upside-down had me stressed out. Had me thinking this was it, the end of the road for me.
JANIS: We asked police to comment on the case but they declined. In fact, there’s currently a warrant for his arrest for failing to appear at a court date in October. His charge, intoxication and shoplifting food from a convenient store. His address listed in court records, a homeless shelter. A man who has little left, to become fodder for the city’s voracious appetite for arrests and law enforcement. But who’s predicament says more about why Baltimore cannot heal than all the stats and numbers money can buy.
CHRISTIAN: It cost me, I lost everything I have worked for.
JANIS: This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.