Article-E-Natasha PrattHarris

Dr. Natasha C. Pratt-Harris

During Melvin Williams’ (“Little Melvin”) home going service on Saturday December 12th, 2015, the Rev. Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant shared a story about a woman who needed help to find her son who went missing during a blizzard. She turned to law enforcement and the community to find him. She was directed to stay at home, in case he returned.  The search for the teenager was done with people working in groups of two, this during the middle of a storm. As the sun set, law enforcement shared that they did everything they could during the daylight and they would resume the search the next morning. She pleaded, asking that they try to search again, but this time, everyone should lock arms and together, she was certain, they could find her son. They complied and after some time they found her son.  He had fallen in a ditch but was dead. She said that if everyone would have worked together, earlier in the day, they may have found her son alive. This heart wrenching story spoke volumes to the life and legacy of “Little Melvin” but also spoke volumes to addressing the needs of law enforcement and the people of Baltimore.

Where Williams will forever be remembered as a legend in Baltimore because of his drug Kingpin status, because of the criminal charges for which he honestly acknowledged, and for his story and contribution to HBO’s The Wire, his legacy as the go-to person to address distress, unrest, and the underlying criminal elements in Baltimore should not be swept under the proverbial rug. Many know that in 1968 during the riots that erupted in Baltimore city after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Williams was one of many responsible for bringing calm and peace to the city. Some forty years later, he shared that under former Baltimore City Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III, he was asked to help address pressing crime problems in the city. He knew and worked with many.  Despite these moments he was also shamed for his past. I’ll forever recall suggesting that Williams be invited to speak to former inmates during my time as a board member for the now defunct Prisoners Aid Association of Maryland, during planning for the annual celebration in 2010. I was told that the powers-that-be in the city would not attend if his name was on the list. While many are cognizant of a need for law enforcement and community collaborations to help to address crime problems or address what to do about the hundreds of men and women who return to the city after spending time behind bars, some may not be willing to engage with people like Williams for personal, social, or political reasons.

As Baltimore became infamous due to HBO’s ‘The Wire’; and has been put on the map again for having astounding increases in murder in 2015, and for the “wait and see” adage related to the Freddie Gray trials, it is imperative that the expertise, experience, and influence of everyone is brought to a law enforcement and community table.  This was evident on April 27th, 2015.  Despite misinformation regarding predicted gang activity in the city, gang members, church pastors, law enforcement, and members of the community worked together to calm Baltimore city, an American city, a city that erupted like many cities across the country during moments of outrage regarding police involved homicides of unarmed men, women, and children.  These moments of unrest are not new, these are actually predictable.  What is not so predictable is how law enforcement and the community will respond to consistent cries for help.

Will the Baltimore city police department, led by Commissioner Kevin Davis, call local criminal justice faculty and experts to the table to help improve law enforcement practices, especially as they describe the manpower limitations within the department?  During Bealefeld’s tenure he did just that.  In August of 2011, he invited local criminal justice faculty to the Baltimore city police department headquarters. He acknowledged that he could not police the city alone and that he needed teams of scholars to help with research, internships, and identifying future Baltimore city police officers.  One outcome of the meeting was the revamping of an internship program where Morgan State University students and other collegians in the area interned for the department, engaging, learning, and sharing with the hope of improving the work of the law enforcement community.

Will the community receive the call for service?  On Monday April 20th, 2015 Congressman Elijah Cummings hosted a “Forum on Policing in the Community”.  Members of the law enforcement community, including former Commissioner Anthony Batts, Deputy Commissioner and Chief of Patrol Col. Darryl De Sousa, and Assistant Pastor and Lt. Col. Melvin Russell attended.  Advocates like Dr. Edward Sutton, lawyers including those who represented the Public Defender’s office, experts including Open Society Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program Director Tara Huffman, educators like myself, and members of the community were well represented.

During the spring of 2008 and 2009, Williams lectured my Community-Based Corrections (Soci 331) students about the reentry experience.  Some turned their nose up to the idea of having him speak to students, others were in awe of the legend, and many had no idea who Williams was.  Either way Williams educated students, some of whom became criminal justice professionals, about a life of crime and a life that included more than 40 years of parole. Years after his visit, students continue to share his story where he focused on the thin line between a legal and illegal life.  Some share their parents’ knowledge about him and his crime filled life and others described him as one who seemed to have a “doctorate in streetology”.

Today I reflect on our encounters and the cries of Baltimore – His leading a discussion on entrepreneurship at his shop on North Avenue near Coppin State University; his proudly introducing guests to his adult daughters; his speaking during a symposium at Coppin State University; his sharing detail about his book; his talking willingly to students at Morgan State University; his securing housing for a student, who I did not know, at the time was homeless; his hosting education sessions for the community about the criminal justice system, with those who were responsible for his prosecution; his reminding me about what the work of criminal justice faculty could be; his introducing me to those who became positive figures locally and nationally after engaging in a life of crime themselves; his accepting a call for help as I introduced him to a former detainee earlier this year; my calling him and expecting him not to recognize my voice, but his response would be “Professor!”  If more members of the law enforcement community, criminal justice experts, criminal justice faculty, advocates, and members of the community at large could have a slither of the photographic memory of Williams (remembering why people revolt) and a slither of the know how to address community concerns (with both law enforcement and the community), we are likely to be responsible for turning things around for the better in Baltimore. But this must happen together with no room for personal, social, or political biases because Baltimore is crying for help, much like the cries heard at the home going service for “Little Melvin”’.

Dr. Natasha C. Pratt-Harris is an associate professor and coordinator of the Criminal Justice program in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology with Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD.