Anne Arundel religious leaders, police hope unity will bring change to crime-ridden west county communities

Phil Davis

Outside on a grassy lot in the Still Meadows community in Severn, a group of religious leaders, citizens and members of the Anne Arundel County Police Department form a prayer circle, holding the hands of one another while a pastor stands in the middle.

"We want people to get their lives back in this area," said Pastor Duante Duckett with the New Kingdom Faith Christian Church in Glen Burnie. "We want the violence to stop, and we want people to get their lives back in this area."

It's the second year the group has gone on its annual Prayer Walk for Peace around parts of west county's more crime-ridden housing communities. On a hot Saturday morning with the sun piercing through an ominous overcast, the group marched from one community to the next, praying for more economic opportunities and a halt to the crime that has long plagued the region.

In 2016, Anne Arundel police with the department's Western District responded to 539 reports of violent crime, according to spokesman Marc Limansky.

Those familiar with the area regularly point to some of the more economically challenged housing communities, such as Still Meadows and Meade Village.

The county police department has recently upped its efforts to try and establish more lasting relationships with the region's residents, restarting the Police and Community Together program where officers work with local clergy to organize positive events to remove the stigma of the uniform.

But those who organized Saturday's walk said there's still a lot to be done. An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge recently criticized the culture at Meade Village during a murder trial, lambasting residents for not stepping forward as witnesses to the crime.

For as much as the prayer walk was meant as a religiously tinged response to the region's crime problems — with speeches resembling sermons and all those in attendance bowing their heads with their eyes closed — organizers say it's also meant to send a message of unity.

Along with police officers, Anne Arundel Councilman Pete Smith, D-Severn, and north county Dels. Ned Carey and Mark Chang participated in Saturday's walk.

"I think what just you see here is you see everyone involved leading the charge," Duckett said. "I believe the community along with our councilmen ... we kind of create this bond, this collaborative effort where we share with everyone what we need."

Bishop Eric Wright, with the Rhema Word Worship and Praise Center in Brooklyn Park, said he knows the culture of the communities, having sold drugs in the area during the 1990s.

He said if these communities continue to operate without a sense of connectedness to their neighbors, elected officials and police department, "it's like shaking up a soda."

"With a lack of resources and a lack of opportunity, a lot of people get frustrated," he said. "Eventually, you know, when you pull the cap, it's going to explode."

County Police Chief Timothy Altomare said events like Saturday's walk are part of an effort by the department to reinstate community policing programs and activities that had been gutted by budget crunches, starting in the early 2000s.

He said there are children raised in these housing communities who are now close to adulthood and have never seen a police officer in a positive light because of the crime they are surrounded by.

"We have a whole generation ... all they saw was police coming in and putting people in handcuffs," Altomare said.

For all the images of police officers holding hands with the region's African-American religious leaders, there were as many prayers and calls to end the underlying circumstances many people believe are contributing to the community's problems.

As officers handed out bottled water and joked about the morning heat, conversations would start about a lack of economic opportunities for residents of the region.

Wright said there's still a concern about how much drug trafficking money is integrated into the community and how to best counteract that.

"It funds everything, from youth events to organized crime," he said. "I know when I was doing it, I was helping that mother that needs to pay for registration for football."

So he said he hoped those involved in selling drugs now will understand the negative impact they have on the community and will use their entrepreneurial skills to start "new enterprises" that can help their neighborhoods in a positive way.

As members of the church joined hands with legislators and police officers, calls for the neighborhoods to embrace a sense of community rang out across well-worn cul-de-sacs with apartments and condominiums packed tightly together.

Rick Johnson, a 54-year-old Severn resident who joined the walk as it progressed toward Pioneer City, said he's lived in the area for the past 18 years.

He admitted he's seen his fair share of police officers called to his residence, and some who are biking alongside the walk recognize him and carefully engage in some playful banter with him.

He said for the 18 years he's lived there, the area has seen improvement as police have targeted drug dealers.

But he said he wanted to join the group to show some solidarity with the police department in their ongoing efforts to improve the quality of life in the poorer parts of west county.

"The police got a hard job," he said. "It's a tough job and nobody respects them."

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