As violence and fear encroach upon schools and shopping malls even in the sleepiest of Baltimore’s suburbs, so has the stark reality that crime is everywhere, and that faith leaders and communities must abandon their own apathy first in order to change anything.
Gone are the years of so-called zero tolerance policing during the 1990s when the sole responsibility for public safety in big cities like Baltimore was vested almost entirely in the uniform, the judicial robe, and the capacity of prisons to absorb the tsunami of those arrested on minor drug charges.
Community policing, the new normal being embraced by police districts across the country in places as diverse as Boston and Baton Rouge, is nowhere more evident than in Baltimore City where Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, the commander of the Community Partnership Division, is slowly but steadily breaking down barriers between police, faith communities, community leaders, and neighborhoods both east and west.
“These neighborhoods share many of the same issues,” says Russell, “no matter where you live.”
Baltimore is a collection of more than 300 neighborhoods spanning 92 square miles with a resident population of about 621,000, according to the latest census figures. The face of crime in Gardenville can look very different from crime in Penn Lucy given Baltimore’s broad diversity.
“I always ask first do you want to see peace, hope and love restored to the community. If we can use that as our foundation, we can accomplish a lot,” says Russell, an assistant pastor in his church, who is gaining a reputation among law enforcement nationally for effective policing strategies that combine respect for the community, practical solutions and his strong faith in Jesus Christ.
At a recent event on community policing in Lowell, Mass., Dave Funnell, a community leader who attended, recalls that Russell, the invited guest speaker, began by saying he came dressed just for a “talk” in blue jeans and a sweater. But before he was done, Russell had received “half-a-dozen standing ovations with people crying ‘Praise the Lord.’”
Russell says that most places operate in silos, especially within the faith community. “It doesn’t matter whether we are Christian, Muslim or Jew, we can all work together.”
Central to the work of Baltimore’s Community Partnership Division is a pilot program currently being implemented in the Eastern and Western Districts.
Russell is focused on building out 29 “sector leadership teams” that are comprised of “shareholders” within the faith community, nonprofit organizations and community volunteers. Each sector within the community is tasked with identifying issues and concerns, devising strategies to solve the issues and implementing the strategy.
One of his challenges internally within the department is getting the manpower and organizational resources that are a necessary part of developing the continuity and engaged presence between community officers and the communities they serve.
“I want every community officer on the force to fall under my division. They will stay in their respective communities, but they will remain under my tutelage,” says Russell, who during his tenure as commander of the Eastern District, is credited with a precipitous drop in homicides and shootings in the district.
The problem is that community officers, who are often viewed as expendable, are pulled away to work as patrol officers responding to 911 calls, burglaries, drug-related incidents and robberies.
“We’re all police. We all took the same oath. And we all win when the skills of community officers are put to their best use. In the long run, a full-time community officer will bring relational equity between the police and the community. This gives the community an opportunity to establish an ongoing two-way dialogue.
And it teaches the community officer to engage with the other patrols in the district providing them with key intelligence they couldn’t otherwise access. It’s a force multiplier.”
In addition to using community officers as important bridges to the community, Russell believes strongly that it makes a huge difference when communities themselves roll up their sleeves and engage. He saw firsthand the transformational difference this approach made in east Baltimore during his signature “Days of Hope” when the Eastern District facilitated huge community events that brought resources to thousands of residents from dozens of nonprofits, engaged volunteers and faith leaders.
“It’s difficult to sell drugs when 20 or 30 people from the church turn out en masse in an open-air drug market to send a signal that they don’t want this in their community,” he says.
A collective shift in the community’s responsibility toward crime prevention and reduction is critical to the long-term success of community policing however.
The Baltimore City Police 2013 Strategic Plan for Improvement for Improvement reveals the need for a greater connection between police and the community. In response to a Community Leader Survey, the majority of respondents rated most of the services provided by the police as ‘extremely’ or ‘very important,’ but less than half of the community leaders surveyed were satisfied with the current level of service.
“The stress must be on “partners,” says Russell, “the community needs to know from the police that we love you. We appreciate you. And we want to support you.
But our community shareholders must take ownership.”