The Baltimore City Police Department has put out an open call to local bishops, pastors and rabbis in hopes that the faith community will become a more integral part of a new anti-crime strategy.
In a three-hour presentation and panel session at the American Brewery in East Baltimore, Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, head of the new Community Policing Division, laid out his plan to reduce crime by building better relationships between police officers and citizens. Police Commissioner Anthony Batts also attended the meeting.
Russell, who is known for turning around the police department’s eastern district, is taking an initiative he started four years ago on the city’s east side, the Transformation Team, citywide. The program calls for a network of churches, government agencies, and nonprofits to work cooperatively.
“With God all things are possible,” he said, quoting the Bible. “Faith is one thing, but without works these things are dead.”
Russell and Batts, the newly appointed police commissioner, talked about the use of techniques such as prayer walks, counseling to reform repeat offender and modifying day-to-day routine patrol tactics to be less intimidating to residents.
“I’m declaring war in the city of Baltimore, but it’s not a war of guns, handcuffs, batons, or hate,” Batts told the audience of clergy members gathered for the meeting. “It’s a war of caring and of love. It’s something that is very different for us as an organization.”
The Transformation Team began under Russell when he became the commanding officer of the Eastern District in 2008. The group started to walk through their neighborhoods in prayer, engaging drug dealers in conversation and cleaning up vacant lots contributing to blight.
Batts said that when residents only see police “taking away the uncles, the cousins, and the brothers to jail” but putting nothing positive back into the neighborhood, it creates the atmosphere of hostility between law enforcement and citizens.
“We operate like an occupying army and that has to change,” he said.
“What I want to address is how to build communities.”
The Transformation Team has seen palpable results with the community “Day of Hope” series, free community festivals in areas hard-hit by crime, officials said. The events are scheduled to kick off city wide this summer.
“No other district had more historical violence year after year after year in terms of shootings and homicides,” said Russell of the Eastern District, adding that there were 50 homicides the year before he took over the Eastern District.
“Those are war numbers,” said Russell.
Russell said part of the transformation dealt with doing more than just locking up criminals.
“Because someone commits a violent act doesn’t mean they can’t be a virtuous person, but someone has to open the door,” said Bishop Denis Madden, chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Bishop Marcus Johnson, a member of the Transformation Team’s board of directors, said that although faith-based tactics clearly can’t resolve the problems affecting each neighborhood, they are important in improving the quality of life in crime-ravaged areas.
The organization also offers mentoring programs for youth and adults alike.
“I believe our city can see a real transformation,” he said.