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A New Baltimore Model? 'Officer On The Beat ... Pastor On The Corner'

Pastor Rodney Hudson sits on the steps of Ames Memorial United Methodist Church in West Baltimore, blocks away from the center of the protests and rioting that occurred last month.
Hansi Lo Wang NPR
Pastor Rodney Hudson sits on the steps of Ames Memorial United Methodist Church in West Baltimore, blocks away from the center of the protests and rioting that occurred last month.

A New Baltimore Model? 'Officer On The Beat ... Pastor On The Corner'

The federal investigation into Baltimore's police force is one of the first steps some in the city believe will rebuild the relationship between officers and residents.

Some faith leaders are optimistic that can be done, and past police programs have helped. But other residents are skeptical that West Baltimore residents' trust can be regained.

That divide can be seen between Pastor Rodney Hudson of Ames Memorial United Methodist Church — just a few blocks away from the center of Baltimore's unrest last week — and William Scipio, who recently visited.

Scipio says he was born in Baltimore in 1964, and initially had a good impression of police when he was growing up.

"During school time, we used to have a Officer Friendly, used to come to our classroom and talk to us, you know?" he says. "So as I started growing up, I see a police ride down the street, and I'll speak to him, wave to him — and he look at me like I'm crazy or I didn't exist. ... So I'm like, 'wow, where's Officer Friendly at?' "

Scipio says he respects the police and how stressful their job can be, but that Baltimore officers' relationships with West Baltimoreans aren't good.

"Not all police officers are bad, you know — but the ones that I done seen that patrol the streets here in Baltimore, no," he says.

Hudson says that strain between police and community has driven many here to seek help from faith leaders instead.

"Do you really want to know where the true community police officers are? You lookin' at 'em!" he says. Because who do they come to in the moments of crisis? 'Reverend, I'm hungry! Reverend, my boyfriend just beat me up! What I'm goin' do?' "

The Baltimore police are aware this is happening; they even enlisted Hudson and other ministers to help calm tensions on the streets after Freddie Gray's death, and called their contributions "instrumental."

Hudson sees providing that sort of assistance as a natural part of his duties as a minister.

"Community policing is the officer on the beat joined together with the pastor on the corner," he says.

Baltimore's police department does lists a number of community outreach programs on its website, but one that many residents point to as something the liked — Police Athletic League centers — is no longer available in the neighborhood.

Eric Paige, who retired from the police department in 2006, had been assigned to work at some of the almost 27 PAL centers that were spread across Baltimore.

"A lot of times the kids ate at the PAL center ... we helped them with their homework," he says. "The father figure that many of them were missing — we gave them that."

Some in the department felt the program wasn't the best use of police resources in a crime-ridden city, and only five centers still exist within city limits, according to a Baltimore Police website. But Paige thought the program was effective.

"It is social work. But what's the goal?" he says. "The goal is to deter crime. The goal is to make a better, healthy Baltimore. That's the goal."

Linwood Davis, 20, stands outside what used to be one of West Baltimore's PAL centers, where he says his friendly relationship with the police first took root.

"Lotta memories here," he says. "It was the only place you could come to to have fun around here."

But those memories have faded, Davis says, after seeing police using excessive force in his neighborhood.

Paige says that when officers aren't connected with the community, an easily avoidable us-against-them mentality can develop.

"You're going to have some people that are going to be cold, hard criminals; you're going to have times when officers are going to have to shoot people," Paige says. "But that does not mean that you can't have a relationship with people in the communities because of that."

Davis isn't optimistic that that sort of relationship — that sort of trust — can be rekindled in West Baltimore. Not after what happened to Freddie Gray, and how the community reacted.

"I just don't see it happening again — at all," he says. "Anytimes you got gangs coming together to fight the police? Yeah, I just don't see it happening — ever again. ... Never."

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