Police commander uses community ties to weather storm
One of Eastern district's officers under investigation in shooting
Members of the community as well as Maj. Melvin T. Russell, attend a vigil for Monae Turnage, a 13-year-old who was fatally shot. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna / March 7, 2012)
It could be a scene fraught with tension. An officer under Russell's command has been suspended and is the subject of an intense police investigation, amid allegations that the rifle used to kill 13-year-old Monae Turnage was found in the officer's car.
But Russell focuses on the vigil — he picks up a child and jokes with the mother, spreads handshakes and hugs. The only word about the potential scandal comes from a preacher who offers a prayer for the suspended officer. The victim's relatives join more than a hundred others in bowing their heads.
As attention is riveted on the Eastern District, Russell is benefiting from his 33 years' experience on the force, his unrelenting efforts to forge community ties, and his work as an ordained minister in a slice of Baltimore that includes some of the city's most murderous neighborhoods. There may be no better example than Wednesday's vigil.
The people gathered outside William C. March Middle School are angry about allegations that the officer helped the two boys, 12 and 13, who have been charged in the accidental shooting on Darley Avenue.
But residents have yet to turn their anger toward the Police Department. And to people on this battered side of the city, Melvin T. Russell is the Baltimore Police Department — a day-to-day ambassador who combines community walks with prayer circles.
"It's not his fault," says Monae's aunt, Patricia Marshall, referring to the major and the situation swirling around the officer. At the vigil, she pleads with Russell to speak at Saturday's funeral. She knows he can't talk about the investigation of the officer, but Russell's presence, she says, would show that the department "doesn't condone what happened."
For Russell — and others — the vigil offered more proof that his strong embodiment of the community policing strategy has built a core of support, one that is invaluable in defusing charged situations involving police and residents.
"That part of Baltimore has begun to see a transformation," Councilman Brandon Scott said, noting a drop in killings in the Eastern District over the past several years.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said Russell is "highly regarded in the community, and I know first-hand that his officers are always present at community meetings. He takes his job personally but also handles it professionally. He deserves the support he receives. … He has delivered. "
Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents the area where Monae lived, said it's now time for the community to repay Russell's "hard work to establish strong partnerships" by providing information on Monae's killing.
"Someone knows what happened and they must speak up now," Stokes said.
Depending on what detectives uncover in the days and weeks ahead, there is a chance that Russell will not survive the continuing probe into the officer's conduct. Police officials say they're researching the personnel records of the officer allegedly involved in the Turnage case to determine whether any issues over his four-year career should have been flagged earlier.
The officer — identified by law enforcement sources as 32-year-old John A. Ward — has not been charged with a crime.
Baltimore police commanders declined to allow Russell to be interviewed, at least while the investigation continues.
Reached by phone, Russell heeded the directives from headquarters but said he had not heard complaints about his command. "Me and the BPD will always survive," he said, using the acronym for the Baltimore Police Department. "I'm part of the family."
Some in the community and the police force have privately complained that Russell's religious advocacy borders on evangelizing. Still, the major has not been shy about letting his convictions guide the way he polices his patch of Baltimore.
Last year, Russell joined the mayor in calling on religious institutions of all denominations to get congregants more involved in their communities. It was a continuation of the "Day of Hope" that he had started three years earlier.
With the mayor's encouragement, he reached out to all 120 religious institutions in his district, but complained to The Afro-American that several didn't want to participate. "You can't have a blind eye to people dying outside … your church," he told the newspaper.