When the news about the prophecy was fully revealed, the roll call room at the Eastern District police station momentarily became eerily quiet. As the emotional impact of the experience was slowly absorbed throughout the room, the Baltimore faith leaders and law enforcement officers attending that meeting in early October 2008 were astonished, and even awestruck.
That’s because months earlier, several of them had already heard that a man of God was coming with a clear plan to reduce crime in Baltimore that would forever change the lives of many Baltimoreans.
And there he stood in front at the podium as what now seems, in retrospect, like a kind of crime fighting superhero, a supernatural spirit in full dress uniform with a black 40 caliber Glock dangling at his side: Major Melvin Russell.
The meeting began at Russell’s invitation. It was a joint gathering of clergy and law enforcement, who would later become members of his Transformation Team.
They had assembled to address the pressing issue of crime in East Baltimore.
That evening, holding high an eight-point plan in his hand, Russell laid out his vision for transforming the bleakest outpost of bloodshed and gun-related violence in the entire city – the Eastern District – into a place of light. He told the faith leaders he couldn’t accomplish it alone.
After listening intently to his plan, the Rev. Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, pastor of Freedom Temple AME Zion Church, rose to her feet to calmly inform Russell in a matter-of-fact voice that “your appearance comes as no surprise.”
She told him that it had already been prophesied by the Rev. John Mulinde, a Ugandan minister from a world away, during his previous visit to Baltimore. Rev. Mulinde told Rev. Draper and other clergy that he had experienced a visitation from God during which he received the message that a man of peace would be arriving with a clear plan to rescue the city of Baltimore from the ravages of murder and drug-related crime.
And once they heard the details of Russell’s own visitation, the events as they unfolded during that October meeting seemed to go way beyond a matter of coincidence. Before the meeting at Eastern District had adjourned, several of the city’s most hardened police officers had tears welling in their eyes, including their commanding officer, Major Russell, who collapsed to his knees and openly wept in front of everyone.
“It was an amazing spectacle: the police roll call room had suddenly transformed into a church. This was so far away from anything that any of us had ever imagined happening in a police station,” said Rev. Draper.
In describing the trek from that moment in 2008 to his appointment in 2013 as Lt. Colonel of the new citywide Community Partnership Division, Russell explained how it all began the night he was awakened from his sleep by God himself.
Upon receiving his appointment as commanding officer of the Eastern District, Russell, who is also an assistant pastor, remembers that he immediately had prayed for the direction and vision to accomplish the enormous task that lay ahead.
“And then exactly three nights later at 4 a.m. in the morning, He spoke directly to me. God downloaded his plan to me. If you can imagine how I felt, I was scared to death, trembling and excited like never before, all at the same time.”
At the roll call meeting, he immediately formed his Transformation Team and with the assistance of many others began implementing the eight points of the plan in East Baltimore. For the children, the vast majority of whom had never even visited a local amusement park, the plan was akin to waking up in Disney World: hot dogs, cotton candy, entertainment, moon bounces, and face painting – the works.
For parents, the bags of groceries, health care, and other practical assistance were received like manna from heaven.
The centerpiece of Russell’s strategy, Days of Hope, encourages churches to take the lead in reinvesting and ministering in the communities where they are located rather than tolerating a spiritual vacuum in which church members commute to church on Sundays from their homes in the county, but are otherwise missing in action.
Scores of these events in East Baltimore engaged thousands of residents, faith leaders, service providers, law enforcement, corporate sponsors, local businesses, teachers, health care providers from Johns Hopkins, and hundreds of others in creating life affirming events for those enduring the most impoverished living conditions.
By the third year of the Days of Hope campaign, the shootings and homicide rate in East Baltimore had plummeted to a 40-year low.
The turnaround focused on fostering mutual communication between the community and law enforcement, and building what Russell calls “spiritual equity” with the community. His early efforts captured the attention of then-City Council President, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who as Mayor helped launch the citywide Community Partnership Division in January 2013 to replicate Russell’s approach to crime fighting citywide.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to bring the homicide rate down if we first build the relationship with the community so that when things happen they will call us,” said Russell, who instructs the officers under his command to share their cell phone numbers with community members as one of many innovative strategies to build a strong sense of community.
The result was an overall drop in the Baltimore City homicide rate in 2008 to 234, a steep decrease from a high of 282 the year before, and a steady trend downward during the ensuing period.
Yet despite the success in East Baltimore, the challenges of implementing Russell’s transformational model of policing on a citywide basis remain daunting.
In 2011, Baltimore police reported 196 homicides, the lowest number of slayings in the city since 1978, and far lower than the peak homicide count of 353 in 1993.
But the homicide rate in the city is still among the highest in the nation.
“The city is in spiritual darkness. Money won’t fix it. Guns won’t fix it. I think Lt. Col. Russell deserves the credit and the resources to accomplish God’s plan. He can’t do it alone,” said Rev. Draper.
Lt. Col. Melvin Russell will receive the AFRO’s first John H. Murphy Sr. Award, 8:30 a.m., March 29 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. Click on the button below to purchase tickets.
Tickets purchased online can be collected at the Will Call window on the morning of the event.