Tiffany Majors, president of the historic Greater Baltimore Urban League, said she was deeply troubled when City Councilman Eric Costello asked if the Baltimore Police could use the nonprofit's headquarters, located in a former church, to conduct covert surveillance of the adjacent Orchard Mews apartment complex.
Tiffany Majors, president of the historic Greater Baltimore Urban League, said she was deeply troubled when City Councilman Eric Costello asked if the Baltimore Police could use the nonprofit's headquarters, located in a former church, to conduct covert surveillance of the adjacent Orchard Mews apartment complex. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

If you know the history of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, it’s easy to understand why the non-profit that has long advocated for equal rights for African Americans shouldn’t do secret surveillance for the Baltimore Police Department. And why the organization’s president, Tiffany Majors, found the request so offensive and quickly shot it down.

The request to get involved in covert police operations was made by a City Council member, and Ms. Majors was right to dismiss the idea, though there are others ways her group can help to make the Seton Hill neighborhood safer.

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One of many chapters of a larger national organization started to improve conditions for black Southerners migrating to the big cities of the North, the Urban League grew into the economic arm of the Civil Rights Movement. Its mission was, and still is, to promote economic self-reliance and opportunity for African Americans, whether through job and leadership training or holding corporations responsible for their discriminatory hiring practices. It also pushes for broader equality issues as well.

The Orchard Street Church building where the Urban League is located, and where City Councilman Eric Costello thought was a good place to hide cops, has long been a safe space for the community. Tunnels under the church are believed to be associated with the Underground Railroad and the church a stop on Harriet Tubman’s journey to freedom.

Getting into the business of catching criminals would be a slap in the face of the organization’s history, as well as its present day mission.

It was groups like the Urban League that were the target of aggressive police surveillance tactics meant to thwart the effectiveness of the civil rights movement during the ’60s. How would the organization look joining in that practice now?

Not to mention that the Urban League needs to continue to feel like a place where the community is comfortable coming. Whether we like it or not, having a police presence in a city under a consent decree, in part because of police brutality and abuse of power, will not create that environment. It would make the organization less effective at meeting its mission.

This doesn’t mean the Urban League is not or shouldn’t be concerned about crime in the area just like the rest of its neighbors. I am sure Ms. Majors wants her employees to feel safe walking to their cars in the evenings just like any other employer. She has also said there is no problem with the group working with the police in other ways.

We understand that Councilman Costello, who Ms. Majors said came to her with the request, was responding to residents concerned about what they say has in effect become an open air drug market. We feel for anyone scared to come out of their front door. This simply wasn’t the right way to address it. We don’t care how good of a view the League’s building would provide to an apartment complex police want to target. The request lacked a certain level of cultural sensitivity and competency, and was disrespectful to the organization.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said he needs community partners to address social and other issues that contribute to crime but fall outside the law enforcement role of the police department. The department also needs to develop alliances with these organizations to build trust in the community, which has deteriorated because of high profile police brutality cases in the last several years.

That is how the department should work with groups like the Urban League, rather than engaging them in their police work. The police department doesn’t want to become a social services agency, and non-profits don’t want to become an arm of the police department either.

Refer wayward teens to the Urban League’s leadership youth program. Many teens in Baltimore don’t have enough to do, which can leave idle time to get into trouble. Send ex-offenders to the organization’s job training programs. When people finish their sentences but then can’t find a job, they will turn back to crime to feed themselves and make a living. Hold community meetings at the Urban League headquarters or a career development day for youth on how to become a police officer. All of this makes for a productive partnership.

As far as covert surveillance, conduct that kind of policing at private facilities whose owners are comfortable with the arrangement.

We are sure there are other ways that the police can target crime in the Seton Hill neighborhood, whether it is increasing patrols or sending in undercover officers to buy drugs. Covert surveillance is also still a viable option — just leave the Baltimore Urban League out of it.

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