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Working to put 'community' back in policing

The Baltimore Sun

Newly promoted to police lieutenant, Melvin Russell returned to East Baltimore in the spring of last year and thought he still owned the streets he had left for undercover drug work a decade earlier.

Back in his patrol days, all Russell had to do was park his cruiser on a crowded corner and the young men would disperse.

But now, the people wouldn't go. He climbed out and talked to the men, and they "questioned my authority," said Russell, now a major who commands the Eastern District station. "The mind-set had totally changed."

I had heard almost that exact same story about kids refusing to move for police years ago from New Yorker Edward T. Norris, when he became commissioner in 2000.

Norris used the story to push the idea that cops had gone soft. Under his leadership they'd have zero tolerance for such disrespect. Russell uses the story to push the idea that the police have lost touch and trust with the community they serve.

Russell said he didn't know how or when the word community had disappeared from policing, but I can tell you. While Russell was infiltrating drug gangs, patrol officers were locking up tens of thousands of people, many on charges that prosecutors simply tossed out because the crimes were too minor or weren't crimes at all.

Homicides in 2000 fell under 300 for the first time in a decade, but any good will citizens felt for their police department evaporated as well.

So now Russell is essentially starting over in what has traditionally been one of the most murderous, most drug-ridden, most impoverished and depressed areas of the city.

The city Health Department released a study last week pinpointing a rectangular section of East Baltimore bounded by Edison Highway and Jefferson, North Chester and East Eager streets as part of the city most deeply affected by homicide. In that area, which includes Madison-East End and parts of McElderry Park, Middle East and Milton-Montford, 22 percent of all the years of life lost to various causes could be attributed to homicide.

This area is inhabited by roughly 8,900 people. Life expectancy here is 64.5 years, well below the city's average of 70.9. The area is above the city average in terms of infant mortality, low birth weight and teen mothers (an astonishing 31 percent), and the percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood is three times the city norm.

On Friday, I spent an hour with Adrian Amos, an 11-year veteran of the city police force who is the Eastern District's neighborhood services officer.

He grew up on East Chase Street near Patterson Park Avenue, a block north of the area studied by the Health Department, and on a street now lined with boarded-up homes, including the two-story red brick his mother had owned in the 1970s. He shook his head as he drove past the block, but we discovered all is not lost. Two rowhouses had bright new doors and windows and flower pots outside, evidence of at least a partial rebirth.

Amos took me past the homes of community leaders and a community garden, and by the new housing rising from the rubble as part of the revitalization effort by Johns Hopkins Hospital. He also noted the still-thriving heroin and crack markets and he complained of youngsters "terrorizing neighborhoods." He was talking about kids as young as 11 years old.

"Juveniles and drugs," Amos said. "Drugs and juveniles."

He mentors children and takes them on trips outside East Baltimore so they can understand there's a different way to live.

Of the boarded-up homes, the trash, the dealers, the crime, the statistics from the Health Department, Amos didn't hesitate before answering. "It's bad to us, but it's not bad to them," he said, referring to the children, who simply don't know anything else.

Russell said he's surprised by the Health Department's findings but determined to get the community back on his side. He wants his officers out of their patrol cars and on foot. He shuns the idea of "COP Walks," preferring to call them "Good Neighbor Walks," in part to remove the police stigma from citizen-police patrols that are now common all over the city.

It's not just that the cops don't talk to people anymore, people don't talk to people anymore, Russell said. He tells a story about a Mrs. Johnson. The woman is fictional, but you can picture her as a fixture in virtually any neighborhood.

Everyone knows when she comes home because her muffler is the loudest on the street. And when her neighbors hear that muffler, Russell said "shades should go up, lights should come on and people should be standing in their doorway" ready to help her take in groceries or make sure she gets in safely for the night.

His neighborhood walks are designed to get his cops to know the residents and the residents to know each other. That trust will help the police both solve and prevent crime, and instill the feeling of community after years lost to police trying to arrest their way out of an immensely complex problem that is far beyond the capabilities of any one agency.

Community policing doesn't have to mean being soft on crime. Residents want the crooks off the street and the good guys left alone. There's got to be a way to clear a corner and earn respect at the same time.

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