Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Intolerable Tensions Between American Cities and their Police Forces

Eventually, I decided to write about the uprising, and met a senior figure in the Baltimore Police Department named Melvin Russell. He is as vivid in my memory as anyone I’ve written about, perhaps because it is rare to see a powerful person be so hugely sad. A Baltimore native and career city cop, Russell led the B.P.D.’s citywide community-policing division, and for him community policing was both a professional program and a creed. He had deployed it in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore, especially in the Eastern District. He was sure that the officers under his command had managed to narrow the gap between themselves and their community, and that this was at least part of the reason for a decline in violent crime in those neighborhoods, and for an increase in the number of crimes being solved. During that last week of April, as the chaos deepened, Russell noticed that, in many of the most unsettled parts of West Baltimore, cops were nowhere to be found. Russell, who is black, had worked in the Baltimore Police Department for more than thirty years, and he was not naïve about the racism within its ranks: he had six sons and two daughters, and he said that he and his wife had moved to the far suburbs in part because they wanted to keep their children safe from the Baltimore cops. But it still seemed to surprise him, in a deep and unpleasant way, to see the police simply retreat when they were most needed.

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