Police commander uses community ties to weather storm

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.
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)

On a warm, breezy afternoon, as East Baltimoreans mourn the shooting death of the "little flower" of Darley Park, police Maj. Melvin T. Russell is right where he wants to be — smack in the middle of a crowd of children, teachers, parents and neighbors.

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.

Matthew Stevens, executive director of the Somebody Cares mission, praised Russell for preaching with a badge.

"His role over the last few years has been bringing the community together so that changes can take place, through policing but also through partnerships with the community," Stevens said. "He believes very much in community policing. When they hurt, he hurts."

Samuel T. Redd Jr., director of Operation P.U.L.S.E., a crime prevention program involving East Baltimore clergy and Johns Hopkins corporate security, called Russell a "tough police officer" who brings a different perspective to law enforcement.

"He realized more so than a lot of people in the past that in order to be successful in fighting crime, you have to work with people," Redd said. He recalled Russell passing out backpacks to disadvantaged children and delivering bottled water to an area where there had been a water main break. Recently, Russell rallied dozens of volunteers to fix up a park that had become a drug haven.

"He can pick up the phone and get whatever he needs," Redd said.

Russell became a police cadet at the age of 19 and two years later was the first black valedictorian to graduate from the city police academy, he told the Afro in an interview. In that article, he described his efforts to get crime under control in the Eastern: "I understood spiritually that when you're doing the right thing, all hell will come against you."

In 2004, he joined more than a dozen others in a discrimination lawsuit against the Police Department. In a settlement reached years later, the city agreed to pay $4.5 million, and the department was required to hire a consultant to monitor internal disciplinary process and ensure fairness for white and black officers.

Before joining the command staff, Russell spent years working the shadows of the drug war — an undercover detective during some of the city's deadliest years, starting in the 1990s. In 2005, he armed himself with his family's video recorder and rented a vacant apartment in Oswego Mall, a housing project in Park Heights.

For three weeks, Russell filmed child drug dealers selling heroin and cocaine on the playground, and his investigation led to convictions for several leaders of a gang called "Cutthroat," including an 11-year-old who carried a .40-caliber handgun and a 13-year-old who had fatally shot a rival in the head.

"The younger they get, the more lack of respect they have for human life," Russell, then a sergeant, said.

Two years later he was moved to the Eastern District as a lieutenant, and about 18 months later was promoted to major and put in charge of more than 200 officers. As district commander, he worked brutal hours, sometimes sleeping in his office.

Under his tenure, homicides in the Eastern District — which historically had been the district with the most killings each year — dropped from 50 in 2007 to 28 in 2011. The drop is attributed in part to the demolition of blighted blocks to make way for the expansion of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Three years ago, though, Russell's community ties raised questions about whether the head of a community group got preferential treatment.

Officers, including Russell's top deputy, gave the man time to surrender on a domestic violence warrant instead of immediately arresting him. While wanted on the warrant, Cleaven L. Williams Jr. stabbed his pregnant wife to death; he is serving a life prison sentence. The deputy major was cleared after an internal investigation, but officials also concluded that the warrant had been handled improperly.

Russell has embraced the police commissioner's Community Oriented Policing walks, but prefers to call them Good Neighbor Walks. He begins and ends each by gathering participants in a circle and praying.

He has also reached out to children in the area. A YouTube video shows Russell in a skit in December with middle school students at Collington Square School for the Arts. He appears on stage in his white command uniform, confronted by student actors.

"What are you looking at, yo, get lost, Five-O," one of the young actors says, using the street slang yelled out to warn others that police are approaching. "What are you looking for?" Russell answers. "I'm a person too." The skit concludes with Russell embracing the actors, saying, "My man, my man. It's all good. Lots of love."

Koli Tengella, who teaches social justice theater at the charter school, said he wanted the play to debunk the perception that police and children are at odds. He said Russell "perceives people as human beings and not as potential criminals. … Sometimes you forget he's a police officer."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.