BALTIMORE — Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello called Greater Baltimore Urban League President Tiffany Majors last week to ask a favor on behalf of the Baltimore police: Could detectives use the nonprofit’s west-side headquarters to conduct covert surveillance of suspected drug dealing in an adjacent apartment complex?
Majors said she was taken aback by the proposal — and quickly shot it down.
“I’m not interested whatsoever in using our space, which is a safe space for marginalized communities, for your police hub,” Majors said she told the councilman.
Majors said the proposal badly confused the mission of her historic organization — serving the community through educational and job-training programs — and threatened its hard-earned trust among local residents.
It was also strange, she said, that the request came from Costello (D-District 11).
“I’ve never heard of the police reaching out to a politician to ask a nonprofit agency if police could use their facility for surveillance,” Majors said.
In neighborhoods struggling with drug dealing and the violence that often comes with it, police constantly look for allies in their efforts to make arrests and interface with the broader community.
With trust in police badly deteriorated, the department sometimes seeks those alliances with elected officials, pastors, nonprofit heads and other institutional leaders, who are sometimes more receptive to partnering.
“It’s always hard when you come into a community and there has been a recent history of mistrust,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank that has groomed many of the nation’s police leaders, including Baltimore Commissioner Michael Harrison. “There’s a very important dynamic here, in that in the very moment the police need the community to help them prevent crime, the community is wary of the police.”
The dynamic has long played out in major U.S. cities but is especially a concern in Baltimore given the exploding opioid epidemic, unprecedented violence, repeated corruption and abuse scandals involving police in recent years, and the federal consent decree mandating improved community interactions.
Wexler said there are several examples where police departments have confronted reluctance from both the public and the institutions concerned about appearing too cozy with law enforcement. Los Angeles after the beating of Rodney King and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are two of many such instances in U.S. history.
“That’s what you have in Baltimore right now,” Wexler said.
Breaking out of such a situation requires “an incremental process of trust-building that doesn’t happen overnight,” Wexler said, “but everybody has to move slightly out of their comfort zone, or you don’t get change.”
At times, police-community partnerships are proudly made public, as with the Baltimore police program putting clergy members into patrol cars. In other cases, the arrangements are secret, such as when police conduct covert surveillance from private facilities.
Establishing the latter kind of partnership is a particularly sensitive matter, raising questions about the role of community organizations, churches and hospitals in the crime fight. Tensions can erupt.
Majors said she believes drug enforcement disproportionately targets black communities across the country, but particularly in Baltimore. Allowing police to essentially spy on the Urban League’s neighbors in the Seton Hill neighborhood, and from its offices, would undermine its mission of helping residents succeed, she said.
“I was very bothered by that,” she said.
Costello said in a statement there is no question there is drug dealing in the neighborhood, and his outreach to Majors was simply an attempt to help neighborhood residents who “no longer enjoy their stoops or community amenities” because of it.
Costello said community members have expressed fear that the dealing would soon lead to gun violence, and that they would be retaliated against “if they were the ones who spoke out” about it. So he took it upon himself.
Matt Jablow, a police spokesman, said in recent years, the department has received “numerous complaints” from Seton Hill residents about drug dealing, and responded to “several acts of violence there that appear to have been drug-related.” He added the department is “always looking to partner with members of the community, including, of course, our elected officials, to make Baltimore a safer city.”
Jablow declined to comment on Costello’s exchange with Majors, or on how police identify and seek access to surveillance locations more generally, saying “confidentiality and anonymity are two key components of any successful surveillance operation.”
Covert surveillance is routinely discussed in Baltimore courts as a tool of city police, and drug enforcement is a regular topic of discussion between police, elected officials and local residents.
Costello’s outreach to Majors came on the same day the councilman received an email complaining about an “open air drug market” just a few blocks away, near Mount Calvary Catholic Church and the midtown campus of the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC).
The anonymous sender, who purported to be writing on behalf of “a small group of people who would like to help clean up and heal the problems in Baltimore and bring new life and businesses to the city,” also sent the email to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), officials at UMMC and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and reporters at the Baltimore Sun.
The email alleged “dozens of buyers and sellers operating in the open, on and off, all day long, in all directions,” and called for a collective plan to end the activity.
“We want all parties who have a stake in this part of town and Baltimore in general, to stand up, take ownership, use their resources and just do something to get these drugs and drug related crimes off of our streets,” the email read.
Costello responded and said he appreciated the problem being brought to his attention, and asked the anonymous sender whether they had called 911 to report the drug dealing.
The email was forwarded to the Rev. Albert Scharbach of Mount Calvary, who responded.
He wrote his “first priority has been to minister to the recovering addicts who gather on our corner in proximity to the local methadone clinics,” but that he has witnessed drug dealing in the area and appreciates law enforcement efforts to stem it.
Maj. Daryl Gaines, the Central District commander, wrote back to say police “are aware of the ongoing issues” involving drug dealing in the area, are working to address them and know “there is a lot more work to be done.”
In an interview, Scharbach said, “You don’t have to be around very long to notice money changing hands. It’s pretty much out in the open.” He also said the issue of how to address that activity “is a sensitive topic, because we are ministering to this community.”
The church has started providing egg-and-cheese sandwiches to many of the people who gather at the bus stop by the front of the church to wait for a nearby methadone clinic to open Saturday mornings, he said. They call it “Bus Stop Breakfast.”
At the same time, Scharbach said, he wants to end drug dealing in the area. It’s a balancing act.
“To be clear, while I haven’t personally contacted the police about the drug traffic, I know of parishioners who have and I have supported their efforts. I have also enthusiastically cooperated with police when they’ve made inquiries of any kind,” he said. “A church serves an important role at a crossroads like this because we are able to support law enforcement against drug dealing while serving the community of recovering addicts. In this way, the church can be a ‘salt and a light’ in the midst of the city.”
Mount Calvary is not part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, though archdiocese officials said they helped put Costello and Scharbach in touch. Sean Caine, an archdiocese spokesman, also confirmed the archdiocese has cooperated with police on “surveillance activities” in the past.
“We value our partnership with the City and look for reasonable and practical ways for the Church to assist the City in addressing issues that undermine the safety and well-being of residents,” Caine said.
Scharbach said police have never asked to conduct surveillance out of Mount Calvary.
The area around the church includes UMMC’s Center for Addiction Medicine, which provides outpatient methadone treatment for opioid addiction, and an independent methadone clinic operated by MedMark on Eutaw Street.
Kellie Edris, a spokeswoman for UMMC, said the hospital community, which has been part of the neighborhood for 144 years, shares “the deep concerns associated with open air drug markets and our country’s pervasive addiction challenge.”
The hospital is committed to working with all the community’s stakeholders — residents, clergy, elected officials and police — to increase safety and the local quality of life, she said.
“Open-air drug markets in every part of the city must be addressed; however, law enforcement can’t do it alone,” Edris said. “As a public health institution, we will continue to work with the Baltimore Police Department so the criminal justice system can hold violators accountable and public health providers can provide education and treatment services to those suffering from the disease of addiction.”