Acting Deputy Baltimore Police Commissioner Melvin T. Russell, a 40-year veteran of the force who leads community outreach efforts and became a prominent face of city policing after the 2015 unrest, is leaving the department this week amid an organizational shake-up under new Commissioner Michael Harrison.
Russell oversaw the Police Department’s support services bureau and served as chief of the Community Collaboration Division. His last day will be Wednesday.
A month into Michael Harrison’s tenure as commissioner of one of the country’s most challenged police departments, he’s reshaping it — looking nationally for top candidates and turning a critical eye to command staff.
“Technically I’m being separated from the agency on the 24th, and I have enough time to retire,” Russell told The Baltimore Sun when asked about the nature of his departure.
In a letter posted to the Afro newspaper’s website Monday, Russell said his position was eliminated as part of Commissioner Harrison’s restructuring intended to thin out command staff and reorganize the department. But Russell urged residents to support Harrison, who was formally sworn in last month after serving nearly 30 years with the New Orleans Police Department.
“As a personal request, I ask you to give Commissioner Michael Harrison your full support as he navigates BPD into a world-class law enforcement agency that values its residents, serving and protecting them well,” he wrote. “Despite my transition, it is my prayer that all of us set aside our differences to learn from one another and become a city of unity that thrives for the sake of love, peace, and a hope toward a pleasant tomorrow.”
Russell was promoted in 2012 — under then-Commissioner Anthony Batts — to lieutenant colonel to oversee a new community policing division to work with churches, businesses and former inmates re-entering society. Russell became a well-known face in the department, regularly attending community events even as the department struggled with heavy turnover in commissioners and command staff in recent years.
“He’s going to be a real loss,” said the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of the Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore.
He said Harrison could have seen the value in Russell’s work with the faith community as an asset under the restructuring. But Hathaway said Harrison has yet to meet with some members of the city’s faith community, such as the Ministers' Conference of Baltimore.
“I believe he may have re-evaluated the role that Col. Russell could have played,” said Hathaway, noting Russell’s work with the department’s chaplaincy program. “He’s been that bridge. We feel comfortable talking to him, and he understood the needs of the community.
Hathawayadded that “we must keep our eyes” on Harrison’s efforts moving forward to see if he’s making changes that will benefit the city.
Matt Jablow, a police department spokesman, said Harrison attended a meeting with more than 75 religious leaders when he first arrived in Baltimore in February, and will continue to work closely with the faith-based community.
“He is well aware that he needs their support and help to help make Baltimore a safer city,” he said.
Despite rising tensions between police and the community, Russell walked into the middle of crowds at protests and engaged people in conversations. He was featured in HBO’s “Baltimore Rising” documentary, directed by Sonja Sohn, who had appeared on “The Wire.”
The Rev. Donte L. Hickman, pastor of the 4,000-member Southern Baptist Church, recalled how Russell called him and other faith leaders after the 2015 unrest and asked pastors to bring young men from their churches, and they marched down North Avenue.
“Because of him and that call, that we could make a difference,” they marched, Hickman said. He described how the crowd, along with police, helped clear the way for firefighters to get to a fire.
When a gunshot went off during a police foot chase of an armed suspect in Penn-North just one week after the unrest on the day of Gray’s funeral, Russell appeared quickly on the scene to explain — in an impromptu news conference on the street — that the officers had not fired; the gunshot had come from the suspect’s firearm.
“He believed at his core that faith and prayer were vital to the restoration to our community,” Hickman said. “He was that kind of guy who really took the church and the faith-based organizations seriously when it came to making real change.”
Hickman said he hopes to see similar partnerships between the police department and the faith-based community “for sustainable change” in Baltimore.
Russell was hired by the department in 1979 and was the police academy’s first black valedictorian. An ordained minister, he has appeared at countless vigils, protests, rallies and prayer walks. He once rallied a group of dozens of volunteers to clean up a park that had become a drug haven.
Like many Baltimore families, Russell’s was not immune from the city’s violence. Russell’s son, who shares his name, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the August 2015 stabbing of his roommate, Theophilus Ruffin, 49, at their transitional-living apartment in Southwest Baltimore. After the case was referred to the Baltimore City Circuit Court’s mental health docket, the younger Russell received mental health treatment instead of prison under the terms of his plea.
Russell previously served as commander of the Eastern District, where some residents recalled his outreach to the community.
He regularly spoke to neighborhood old-timers, as well as young men in the street, said Pauline Charles, a leader with Darley Park Neighborhood Improvement Association.
“He talked to everybody in the neighborhood,” she said.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council's public safety committee, said as a kid, he and his friends believed Russell was a drug dealer — because Russell was on duty as an undercover drug cop.
He called Russell’s departure “bittersweet.”
Scott said he supported Russell, who rose through the ranks, and has maintained ties in the community, but he also supports Harrison’s need to restructure the department.
“We have to trust in his ability to do so,” he said, adding he hopes to see a balance of fresh leaders from the outside and established leaders within the department.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said Russell has “filled a crucial position in the department for years now and done a very good job working with local churches and their leaders-organizing at the grass roots. He deserves a lot of credit for the work he has done.”
But Clarke said she also supports Harrison’s restructuring efforts.
“The new commissioner said to me that there will be changes and some will be painful. I would categorize this as painful,” she said.
Harrison’s restructuring plan, which goes into effect Wednesday, calls for reducing the number of colonels from four to two and lieutenant colonel positions from seven to four. Harrison’s also brought in two his colleagues from the New Orleans department to work in Baltimore and said he’s actively looking outside the department to fill other critical roles, such as police academy academic director.
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Four other high-level command staff members have left since, including David Cali, the head of the Baltimore Police Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility; Andre Bonaparte, a former deputy commissioner, who had returned and was deputy Commissioner of Operations; and Robert Smith, who served as chief of special operations. Gary Tuggle, who previously served as interim commissioner, left Baltimore Police after Harrison came to Baltimore.
“We simply had too many people in high-ranking positions without an appropriate span of control to justify their rank,” Harrison said in a statement last week.
Earlier this year, before Harrison was appointed by Mayor Catherine Pugh, Russell expressed interest in serving as commissioner.
“I have a lot to offer to Baltimore,” Russell told The Baltimore Sun in January before Harrison was announced as Pugh’s choice.
Pugh quickly announced Harrison after Joel Fitzgerald, her initial choice withdrew from consideration. Russell said previously he would support whomever the mayor and city council choose.