Baltimore activists from neighborhoods sinking under violence sat down with police commanders yesterday, looking for guarantees that the city will change the way police officers fight crime.
"We don't want to hear that they're going to try. We want to hear that they're going to do it and set dates for when they'll start," said Rose E. Butler, a member of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD).
BUILD is a church-based organization that has been trying for 15 years to stem the decay of city life with new ways of attacking old problems. The organization's goal is to transform neighborhood police from patrol officers reacting to emergency calls into "community-oriented police" who prevent crime by becoming part of the neighborhood.
BUILD says the program has been successful on a small-scale near St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church on Greenmount Avenue and a stretch of Madison Avenue in West Baltimore.
At Kelson Elementary School on North Carey Street yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke watched as BUILD put commanders from the Eastern, Southern, Western, Central, and Southwestern districts on the hot seat by forcing them to publicly answer "yes" or "no" to a list of strategies for accomplishing the goal.
Only one of those five commanders, Maj. Alvin Winkler of the Eastern District, went along with everything the citizens asked for: primarily assigning special officers to get involved in all matters of day-to-day life in their neighborhoods.
The other four, much to BUILD's dismay, said they would try, supported by Mayor Schmoke and police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, but could make no promises because of staff shortages.
Major Winkler has the good fortune of inheriting 60 new graduates of the police academy this Friday, giving him the luxury of assigning officers to specific neighborhoods. They will be expected to do everything from attending church suppers to helping neighbors deal with vacant houses while still chasing bad guys.
"But it has to be with the understanding that the officers will not only work with one community group, but the whole neighborhood," Major Winker said. "I don't want these officers to belong to any particular entity."
Of all the requests -- Major Winker said the hardest job would be fighting drugs and fear of those who sell them.
No one was surprised.
In a meeting with Western District commander Maj. Victory Gregory, BUILD was represented by residents of the Sandtown neighborhood.
Said Marvin Spiwak of the Southern District to residents of Cherry Hill: "You are asking me if I'm prepared to give you a commitment to provide an additional officer [for targeted areas] on a continuous basis. I can't possibly give you that commitment [now]. I will not take an officer from any other post in the Southern District. I will not do that."
While in favor of more police in a department that has lost 1,000 positions since the early 1970s, BUILD doesn't believe it takes more bodies or money to begin making changes toward community policing, a philosophy Commissioner Woods wants to see implemented within five years.
"We want to help while the police move toward their five-year plan," said Kathleen O'Toole, chief BUILD organizer. "We know we can't do it in every neighborhood, but we can create the foundation for it while the slower process is happening. We also want to make the mayor and the police accountable for what they say."
Mayor Schmoke and the police commanders promised to return to Kelson Elementary at noon Saturday, Jan. 23, to meet again with BUILD to gauge any progress made.