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Crime Scenes: Pastor alleges harassment by police

Homicide

He's known for leading the Trail of Tears walk — tours of recent killings — as part of his Garden Community ministry in Bolton Hill and part of a push by Southern Baptist congregations into Baltimore. Joel Kurz's work takes him to the city's most depressed, most dangerous, most drug-riddled neighborhoods.

It also has drawn the attention of Baltimore police.

Officers don't quite know what to do with a 29-year-old white guy who keeps appearing on street corners, and he says they sometimes confuse his ministering with something more sinister — they accuse him of looking to buy drugs.

"I walk down Pennsylvania Avenue a lot," Kurz said, referring to the west-side street that has one of the city's most thriving drug trades. "I've been stopped and questioned, and rightly so. The officers have done it in very respectful ways. They explain why they stopped me and that they're going to ask me questions. I think they should do that."

But then there's what happened last week.

On Feb. 15, Kurz said, he was stopped twice by two different groups of officers while in his car on Park Heights Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. Both times, he said, he was treated rudely and made to feel like a criminal.

His offense?

Kurz wasn't wearing a seat belt.

"My biggest problem is that they treat you like a criminal before they've discovered anything," Kurz said. "They have no reason to believe that I did anything wrong." On the first stop, he said he was ordered from his car and told to sit on a curb while the officers searched his vehicle.

Kurz wrote about his experience on a blog titled "Thugs with Badges," and he complained to the Police Department's Internal Affairs Division. A police spokesman confirmed that an investigation is under way.

A Baltimore police spokesman declined to comment on the incidents involving Kurz because of the investigation.

On Feb. 15, Kurz said he was picking up a fellow worshipper when he was pulled over while turning from a side street onto Park Heights Avenue. He said the officer saw him put on his seat belt at a stop sign.

Kurz said two officers ordered him out of the car, and one asked "if I have anything illegal, drugs, weapons, guns AK-47s." Kurz said he answered no, and the officer accused him of lying. He had to put his hands on his head and spread his legs to be frisked.

"When I tell them what I do for a living, another cop barks, 'I've personally arrested a ton of pastors,'" Kurz said.

Kurz was freed without a citation.

Fifteen minutes later, having picked up his friend, Kurz said two officers in street clothes leaned into the passenger-side window and shouted profanity-laced questions at them. "This is Baltimore City, and we can do what we want," Kurz quoted one of the officers as saying.

Kurz e-mailed the commander of the Central District, where Pennsylvania Avenue is located, and got a quick response from the commander, Maj. Dennis Smith, who wrote that he was "very disturbed by the actions of these cops."

Smith wrote that "no one deserves to be treated like that" and that he believes "we treat everyone with respect and say sir and ma'am as we put the handcuffs on." He referred the complaint to the Northwest District station, where the officers are based, and gave the pastor the number for Internal Affairs.

The pastor is part of a new wave of church startups designed to turn around a decline in membership. That includes expanding from the rural South into urban areas in the Northeast, helping out at soup kitchens and holding services, according to an article published two years ago in The Baltimore Sun.

Members held the first Trail of Tears march in May 2009, visiting the sites of five killings. Kurz said they do one such walk once every six months. At each site, they place a rose and say a prayer.

Kurz placed this addendum on his blog: "I have been extremely pleased and encouraged thus far with the department's seemingly effective response."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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