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Baltimore Rising: Two Years After Freddie Gray’s Death, Shaken City Mends

Image: FreddieGray Anniversary

A mural of Freddie Gray near the location where he was arrested in Baltimore, Maryland on April 17, 2017. Andre Chung / for NBC News

BALTIMORE —It’s an overcast morning outside Gilmor Homes, the public housing complex where two years ago, Freddie Gray was arrested and placed in police custody. His death one week later—on April 19, 2015— would trigger a series of cataclysmic events that changed countless lives and forever altered a city.

On today's second anniversary — which comes fresh on the heels of a formalized consent decree with the Justice Department intended to guide and monitor police reforms — city leaders, activists and residents reveal a mix of optimism tempered by realism about the road ahead.

“We’re still a city divided. I see both the elevation and the regression,” said Earl Mahammitt, 35, who grew up in Sandtown-Winchester, the historic yet struggling African-American community that Gray called home. “We were starting at a negative axis, not even zero. It’s going to take a lot for the conditions to improve.”

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Earl Mahammitt, 35, reflects on the state of the neighborhood while standing in the community where Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore. Andr? Chung / for NBC News

As Mahammitt spoke, a police cruiser slowly patrolled the streets. The so-called "corner boys" — a local nickname for young men who sell drugs — hustled near storefronts. A few folks walked past a colorful mural of Gray, one of several around town that serve as memorials.

The relative quiet here is a far cry from what some locals term either "the riots," "the Baltimore Uprising" or, simply, "the unrest" that shook this predominately black metropolis and its population of approximately 620,000 residents.

It started when police arrested Gray, a 25-year-old man who’d had prior brushes with the law, after he spotted officers while walking with friends and suddenly took off running. Gray was chased, then surrendered, before being placed inside a police van, some of which witnesses captured on cell phone video. Transported without a seat belt, he died a week later from a spinal injury.

An undated image of Freddie Gray provided by the family's attorney via WBAL

Gray's death sparked peaceful protests that became increasingly tense with each passing day. Hours after his funeral, pockets of the city erupted, following an earlier standoff with youth and law enforcement at a local mall.

The rioting, looting and arson that resulted would damage several hundred businesses, injure at least two-dozen police officers and lead to mass arrests.

Beamed by media around the country and the world, the situation helped further propel the Black Lives Matter movement — along with debates about police brutality and mistreatment of people of color.

Related: Trump Objections Don’t Stop Overhaul of Baltimore Police After Freddie Gray Death

“The family is still grieving,” said William "Billy" Murphy, a prominent attorney who represented Gray’s mother and other relatives in a $6 million civil settlement from the city. “They’re not at all in the public eye.”

Just as the family continues to recover, Baltimore's recovery also remains a work in progress. The city has elected a new mayor and multiple new City Council members. In October 2015, a new police commissioner replaced the former chief who was fired by then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake shortly after the turmoil.

Freddie Gray Protestors
Protestors lock arms in front of police officers near the intersection of West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore, MD on Tuesday April 28, 2015. Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post/Getty Images

Since that time, millions of state and federal dollars set in motion under Barack Obama's administration have been pumped into the local economy. Convention bookings and tourism have rebounded, with recent articles in the New York Times and Vogue touting Baltimore’s museums, restaurants, newest luxury hotels and quirky charms. Recently, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts hosted its second annual Light City festival, a free event that drew about 470,000 attendees to the Inner Harbor.

Moreover, experts say the real estate market hasn’t suffered in the aftermath of the unrest.

“To date, we have seen no negative impact on sales volume, prices, or market demand. In the 24 months since April 2015, there has been a year-over-year increase in home sales in every month but three and that was attributable to [inclement] winter weather,” said Annie Milli, marketing director for Live Baltimore, an independent nonprofit that promotes the benefits of city living. “This year is pacing especially well. We ended the first quarter of 2017 with a 15 percent increase in sales volume over the first quarter of 2016.”

Related: Baltimore Receives $5 Million Dollar ‘Trauma’ Grant

Yet the city is grappling with the same woes as many once-thriving industrial enclaves: persistent crime, pockets of poverty and inadequate educational and employment opportunities for some residents.

Unemployment rates remain well above the national average. Officials report that some 76,000 people are unemployed in the city, including an estimated 10,000 ex-offenders who return to the community every year.

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Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh outside the rebuilt CVS that was destroyed during the unrest two years ago in Baltimore, Maryland on April 17, 2017. Andre Chung / for NBC News

Elected officials stressed that it will take the combined efforts of government, the business community and neighborhood advocates to solve the underlying issues.

“We have a strong commitment from government and business leaders to create economic opportunity for people living in neighborhoods that have historically been underserved,” said Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), whose district includes West Baltimore, where the fateful scenario with Gray unfolded. “Conversations and collaboration between affluent and impoverished communities are beginning to break down walls of misunderstanding that were built decades ago.”

U.S. Census data shows Baltimore has a poverty rate above 20 percent.

Catherine Pugh, a former state senator was sworn in as mayor in December 2016. A business owner with an MBA, she’s vowed to make education and uplifting youth, economic and workforce development key pillars of her administration.

“I’m committed to tackling the problems facing our city today — unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, hopelessness and homelessness,” said Pugh, standing in front of the rebuilt CVS that was torched during the unrest. “And because we are a resilient city we can overcome and work to resolve these issues and problems head on, together.”

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Baltimore mayor, Catherine Pugh speaks to a resident about job programs outside the rebuilt CVS that was destroyed during the unrest two years ago in Baltimore, Maryland on April 17, 2017. Andre Chung / for NBC News

The mayor was on hand this month as the city’s Enoch Pratt Free Library unveiled its first Mobile Job Center last week. The vehicle, equipped with computer terminals, will travel to neighborhoods to help job seekers search and apply for employment.

“BGE/Exelon helped us fund this public private partnership,” said Pugh, who’d outlined the concept during her campaign. “And I’ve got commitments from other companies to launch several more mobile units.”

Related: Justice Department Finds Baltimore Police Practices Are Racially Biased

She believes providing summer and year-round jobs for young people and fellow residents is part of the equation that will help drive down crime. So far this year, Baltimore has logged 95 murders, including several fatal shootings over the Easter holiday weekend.

Homicides spiked after the unrest, totaling 344 for 2015, the highest per capita in the city's history. It proved one more challenge in a police department already beset by controversy, including recent federal indictments of seven officers in a special unit who were accused of corruption.

It comes less than two years after six officers, three of them African-American, were charged in Gray's death. Several trials ended with not guilty verdicts; the remaining cases were eventually dropped by Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. She is now facing lawsuits from five of the six officers; all six remain on the force while administrative investigations continue from an outside department.

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Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore State's Attorney announced criminal charges against six officers on Friday, May 1, 2015. Several officers were exonerated; the remaining cases were dropped. Alex Brandon / AP

While prosecutors sought a different outcome in the cases, Mosby believes that as a result of “applying justice fairly and equally,” the city and its people will ultimately benefit.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said, noting that her office prosecutes about 50,000 cases annually and has a 93 percent felony conviction rate. “I think the exposure and accountability led to the police reforms that are part of the Justice Department consent decree.”

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has emphasized stronger community ties and he’s already begun implementing a series of departmental reforms. They include revising policy on use of force; having officers wear body cameras; increased training, including in such areas as cultural sensitivity; changes in the way detainees are transported; and increased foot patrols.

“We can’t cling to the old ways,” said Davis. “I think within a decade the city will be in an entirely different place.”

Although some Baltimore residents interviewed in Gray’s old neighborhood complained that police are still using aggressive tactics, others felt that relations have improved.

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Ray C. Kelly is an organizer and activist with the No Boundaries Coalition, which has been working in West Baltimore since 2010. Andre Chung / for NBC News

“The cops are still harassing us,” said a young black man who declined to give his name.

“I think there’s more respect,” counters a middle-aged woman who also requested anonymity. “The police come to community meetings and they’re trying to build relationships.”

The Baltimore consent decree was negotiated between city officials and Justice Department lawyers in the final days of the Obama administration. It followed a federal investigation and report that found widespread constitutional violations.

Related: Baltimore ChangeMakers: From Catching Cases to Building Warriors For Peace

Some 50 residents and groups gathered earlier this month in a Baltimore U.S. District courtroom to urge Judge James Bredar to approve the agreement, which he did on April 7.

Previously, the nation’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had ordered a review of agreements with police departments across the U.S. It alarmed civil rights advocates concerned that the administration of President Donald Trump will decrease measures to halt police abuses.

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Greta Carter-Willis testified in favor of the consent decree in Baltimore, Maryland in April. Carter-Willis told the court that her 14-year-old son, Kevin L. Cooper, was shot and killed in August 2006 by a Baltimore police officer. Andre Chung / for NBC News

"For decades we've dealt with a militarized police force, who have done racial profiling, committed brutality and every level of disrespect," said Ray Kelly, a West Baltimore resident and community organizer with the No Boundaries Coalition. "It's time for a change."

Several mothers, all African-American, spoke in court about incidents involving police and their sons.

Greta Carter-Willis told the court that her 14-year-old son, Kevin L. Cooper, was shot and killed in August 2006 by a Baltimore police officer. A single mother at the time, she’d called to report the teen was acting out but tragedy ensued when her son brandished a plastic dust pan and the officer reportedly said he felt threatened.

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A photo of Kevin Lamont Cooper two years before he was killed by a Baltimore police officer in 2006. Andre Chung / for NBC News

“My son died right in our home,” she said, crying softly. “My goal as a grieving mother is to assist our troubled department to bring back community policing and help the public regain its trust in law enforcement.”

As part of the decree, an independent monitor will oversee reforms. The mayor said the position will be publicly announced soon.

Dayvon Love, a community activist with the progressive group, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said if Baltimore’s politicians and residents are willing to abandon the status quo, there is hope for the city to rise after Gray’s death. But he urged expediency.

“I think there is a window of time in terms of producing positive effects,” he said. “In this atmosphere where people feel hopeful, if we continue to organize, I think we can achieve meaningful progress.”

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Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle from left: Deverick "DevRock" Murray, "Lady" Brion Gill, Lawrence Grandpre (seated), Dayvon Love, and Adam Jackson. Andre Chung / for NBC News

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