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TEDxMidAtlantic

Melvin Russell: I love being a police officer, but we need reform

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We've invested so much in police departments as protectors that we have forgotten what it means to serve our communities, says Baltimore Police officer Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell. It's led to coldness and callousness, and it's dehumanized the police force. After taking over as district commander in one of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods, Russell instituted a series of reforms aimed at winning back the trust of the community and lowering the violent crime rate. "Law enforcement is in a crisis," he says. "But it's not too late for all of us to build our cities and nation to make it great again."

- Chief of the Community Partnership Division, Baltimore Police Department
Melvin Russell is bringing stakeholders together to work toward the common goal of peace and prosperity for Baltimore City. Full bio

I have been a police officer
for a very, very long time.
00:12
And you see these notes in my hand
because I'm also a black preacher.
00:15
(Laughter)
00:21
And if you know anything
about black preachers,
00:23
we'll close, and then we'll keep
going for another 20 minutes.
00:25
(Laughter)
00:28
So I need this to keep
pushing this thing forward.
00:29
I've been a police officer
for a very long time,
00:31
and I mean I predated technology.
00:34
I'm talking about before pagers.
00:35
(Laughter)
00:37
Laugh if you want to,
but I'm telling the truth.
00:38
I predate War on Our Fellow Man --
I mean, War on Drugs.
00:41
I predate all of that.
00:45
I predate so much
00:47
and I've been through ebbs and flows
00:49
and I've been through good and bad times,
00:50
and still I absolutely love
being a police officer.
00:53
I love being a police officer
because it's always been a calling for me
00:58
and never a job.
01:01
And even with that,
01:04
my personal truth is that
law enforcement is in a crisis.
01:06
It's an invisible crisis,
01:11
and it has been for many, many years.
01:13
Even though we in law enforcement say,
01:16
"You know what?
We can't arrest our way out of this."
01:18
We say in law enforcement things like,
01:23
"Yeah, it's illegal to profile."
01:25
You know what?
01:28
In law enforcement, we even agree
that we have to adopt this thinking
01:29
and become more oriented
to community policing.
01:32
And yet all the while, still,
01:34
we continue in the same vein,
01:37
the same vein that contradicts
everything that we just admitted.
01:39
And so that's the reason for me,
several years ago.
01:45
Because I was tired of the racism,
I was tired of discrimination,
01:48
I was tired of the "-isms"
and the schisms.
01:51
I was just so tired.
01:54
I was tired of the vicious cycle,
01:55
and I was tired of it even
in the beloved agency
01:58
in the department that I still love today.
02:01
And so my wife and I, we sat down
02:04
and we decided and we targeted
a date that we would retire.
02:06
We would retire and I would
go off into the sunset,
02:10
maybe do ministry full time,
love my wife a long time.
02:12
Y'all know what I'm talking about.
02:15
(Laughter)
02:17
But we decided that I would retire.
02:18
But then there was a higher power than I.
02:20
There was a love for the city
02:24
that I loved, that I grew up in,
that I was educated in --
02:27
a city that pulled my heart
back into the system.
02:30
So we didn't retire.
02:34
We didn't retire
02:36
and so what happened was,
02:38
over the next -- I would say,
18 months, 19 months,
02:40
I had this passion to implement
some radical policing.
02:45
And so now, over the next 19 months,
02:49
I shifted, and I transcended
from being a drug sergeant --
02:51
ready to retire as a drug sergeant --
02:56
and went from level to level to level,
02:58
until I find myself
as a district commander,
03:00
commander of the worst district
in Baltimore city.
03:03
We call it the Eastern District,
03:06
the most violent district,
03:08
the most impoverished district --
03:09
46 percent unemployment in that district.
03:11
National rating at that time,
03:16
national rating, the AIDS
and the tuberculosis [rating],
03:18
was always on the top 10 list
03:21
for zip codes for cities
across the nation,
03:23
or just zip codes across the nation.
03:26
The top 10 -- I didn't say state,
I didn't say city --
03:28
that little neighborhood.
03:31
And I said, you know what?
We gotta do something different.
03:33
We gotta do something different.
We gotta think radical.
03:36
We gotta think outside the box.
03:39
And so in order to bring change
that I desperately wanted
03:41
and I desperately felt in my heart,
03:44
I had to start listening
to that inner spirit.
03:46
I had to start listening
to that man on the inside
03:48
that went against everything
that I had been trained to do.
03:50
But we still did it.
03:54
We still did it because we listened
to that inner spirit,
03:56
because I realized this:
03:58
if I was to see real police reform
04:00
in the communities that I had
authority over for public safety,
04:04
we had to change our stinkin' thinkin'.
04:08
We had to change it.
04:12
And so what we did
is we started to think holistically
04:13
and not paramilitarily.
04:16
So we thought differently.
04:18
And we started to realize
04:20
that it could never be
and never should have been
04:22
us versus them.
04:24
And so I decided to come
to that intersection
04:26
where I could meet all classes,
all races, all creeds, all colors;
04:29
where I would meet the businesses
and the faith-based,
04:32
and the eds, the meds,
04:34
and I would meet all the people
04:36
that made up the communities
that I had authority over.
04:37
So I met them and I began to listen.
04:41
See, police have a problem.
04:43
Off the top, we want to bring
things into the community
04:44
and come up with these extravagant
strategies and deployments,
04:47
but we never talk
to the community about them.
04:50
And we shove them into the community
and say, "Take that."
04:52
But we said we'd get rid
of that stinkin' thinkin',
04:55
so we talked to our communities.
04:58
We said, "This is your community table.
04:59
We'll pull up a chair.
We want to hear from you.
05:01
What's going to work in your community?"
05:03
And then some great things
started to happen.
05:05
See, here's the thing:
05:08
I had to figure out a way to shift
130 cops that were under my tutelage
05:09
from being occupiers of communities
05:15
to being partners.
05:17
I had to figure out how to do that.
05:19
Because here's the crazy thing:
05:21
in law enforcement, we have evolved
into something incredible.
05:23
Listen, we have become great protectors.
05:26
We know how to protect you.
05:28
But we have exercised that arm
so much, so very much.
05:30
If I was a natural police department
05:34
and I represented a police department,
05:38
you would see this incredible,
beautiful, 23-inch arm.
05:40
(Laughter)
05:42
It's pretty, ain't it? It's cut up.
05:45
No fat on it. Mmm it look good.
It just look good!
05:48
(Laughter)
05:51
That's a great arm -- protection!
05:53
That's who we are, but we've exercised
it so much sometimes
05:55
that it has led to abuse.
05:59
It's led to coldness and callousness
and dehumanized us.
06:02
And we've forgotten
06:06
the mantra across this nation
06:08
is to protect and serve.
06:09
Y'all don't know that? Protect and serve.
06:12
(Laughter)
06:14
So you look at the other arm,
06:15
and then you look at it
and ... there it is.
06:16
(Laughter)
06:18
You know, it's kinda weak.
06:20
It looks sickly.
06:22
It's withering and it's dying
06:24
because we've invested so much
in our protective arm.
06:27
But we forgot to treat our communities
06:31
like they're our customers;
06:34
like they're our sons and daughters,
our brothers and sisters,
06:36
our mothers and fathers.
06:39
And so somehow, along the way,
06:40
we've gotten out of balance.
06:42
And because we are a proud profession,
06:44
it is very hard for us to look
in the mirror and see our mistakes.
06:47
It's even harder to make a change.
06:51
And so, as I try to hurry
and get through this,
06:53
I need to say this:
06:57
it's not just law enforcement, though.
06:58
Because every one of us
makes up a community.
07:00
Everybody makes up a community.
07:03
And as communities -- can I say this? --
07:05
we have put too much responsibility
on law enforcement.
07:07
Too much.
07:12
(Applause)
07:13
And then we have the audacity
and the nerve to get upset
07:18
with law enforcement
when we take action.
07:21
There is no way in the world
07:24
that we, as a community,
should be calling the police
07:26
for kids playing ball in the street.
07:30
No way in the world that we
should be calling the police
07:34
because my neighbor's
music is up too loud,
07:36
because his dog came over
to my yard and did a number two;
07:38
there's no way we should
be calling the police.
07:41
But we have surrendered
so much of our responsibility.
07:44
Listen, when I was a little boy
coming up in Baltimore --
07:46
and listen, we played
rough in the street --
07:50
I ain't never see the police
come and break us up.
07:52
You know who came? It was the elders.
07:55
It was the parental figures
in the community.
07:56
It was those guardians,
it was that village mentality.
07:59
They came and said, "Stop that!"
and "Do this." and "Stop that."
08:02
We had mentors throughout
all of the community.
08:05
So it takes all of us, all of us.
08:09
And when I say community,
08:12
I'm talking about everything
that makes up a community, even --
08:13
listen, because I'm a preacher,
I'm very hard on the churches,
08:16
because I believe the churches
too often have become MIA,
08:19
missing in action.
08:22
I believe they have shifted
over the last 10, 20 years
08:23
from being community churches,
08:26
where you walk outside your door,
round the corner and you're in church.
08:27
They shifted from that and became
commuter churches.
08:31
So you now have churches who have
become disconnected by default
08:34
from the very community
where they're planted.
08:38
And they don't take care
of that community.
08:42
I could go on and on,
but I really need to wrap this up.
08:45
Community and policing:
08:47
we've all lost that precious gift,
and I call it relational equity.
08:50
We've lost it with one another.
08:55
It's not somebody else's fault --
08:57
it's all of our fault.
08:59
We all take responsibility in this.
09:01
But I say this: it's not too late
for all of us to build our cities
09:03
and nation to make it great again.
09:06
It is never too late.
09:08
It is never too late.
09:09
You see, after three years
09:11
of my four-and-a-half-year
commandship in that district,
09:12
three years in,
09:16
after putting pastors
in the car with my police
09:17
because I knew this --
it's a little secret --
09:19
I knew this:
09:22
it was hard to stay a nasty police officer
09:23
while you're riding around
with a clergy.
09:26
(Laughter)
09:28
(Applause)
09:30
You'd be getting in and out of the car,
looking to your right, talking about:
09:38
"Father, forgive me, for I have sinned,"
all day long -- you can't do it!
09:42
So we came up with some
incredible initiatives,
09:45
engagements for our community
and police to build that trust back.
09:47
We began to deal with our youth
09:51
and with those who we consider
are on the wrong side of the fence.
09:52
We knew we had an economic problem,
09:56
so we began to create jobs.
09:57
We knew there was sickness
in our community
09:59
and they didn't have access
to proper medical care,
10:01
so we'd partner up.
10:04
We got to that intersection
and partnered up
10:05
with anybody that wanted
to partner with us
10:07
and talked about
what we needed holistically,
10:09
never thinking about the crime.
10:11
Because at the end of the day,
10:13
if we took care
of the needs of the people,
10:14
if we got to the root cause,
10:16
the crime would take care of itself.
10:19
It would take care of itself.
10:22
(Applause)
10:24
And so, after three years
of a four-and-a-half-year stint,
10:29
we looked back and we looked over
10:34
and found out that we were
at a 40-year historical low:
10:36
our crime numbers, our homicides --
10:39
everything had dropped
down, back to the 1970s.
10:42
And it might go back further,
10:45
but the problem is, we only
started keeping data since 1970.
10:46
Forty-year crime low, so much so,
I had other commanders call me,
10:49
"Hey Mel, whatcha doin', man?
10:52
Whatcha doin'? We gotta get some of that!"
10:54
(Laughter)
10:56
And so we gave them some of that.
10:57
And in a short period of time,
11:00
the city went to a 30-year crime low.
11:02
For the first time in 30 years,
we fell, Baltimore city,
11:05
to under 200 homicides -- 197 to be exact.
11:07
And we celebrated,
11:10
because we had learned
to become great servers,
11:11
become great servers first.
11:15
But I gotta tell you this:
these last few years,
11:16
as much as we had learned
11:20
to become great proactive police officers
11:22
and great relational police officers
rather than reactive,
11:25
these last years have disappointed me.
11:29
They have broken my heart.
11:32
The uprising still hurts.
11:34
It still hurts my heart,
11:37
because truly I believe
that it should've never happened.
11:39
I believe it should've never happened
11:43
if we were allowed to continue
along the vein that we were in,
11:44
servicing our community,
11:47
treating them like human beings,
treating them with respect,
11:49
loving on them first.
11:52
If we continued in that vein,
11:54
it would've never happened.
11:56
But somehow, we went back
to business as usual.
11:58
But I'm excited again!
12:01
I'm excited again, because now
we have a police commissioner
12:04
who not only talks
about community policing,
12:07
but he absolutely understands it,
12:11
and more importantly, he embraces it.
12:14
So I'm very excited now.
12:16
Listen, I'm excited about Baltimore today,
12:17
because we, as many cities,
I believe shall rise from the ashes.
12:20
I believe -- I truly believe --
12:25
(Applause)
12:28
that we will be great again.
12:29
I believe,
12:32
as we continue to wrap arms
and continue to say,
12:34
"We're in this together,"
12:37
because it's not just an intersection:
12:38
once we meet, we now gotta get
on the same path for the same goals,
12:40
and this city will become great again.
12:44
This nation will become great again.
12:46
Because we have the same goal:
we all want peace.
12:48
We all want respect for one another.
12:50
We all want love.
12:52
And I believe we are back on that road,
12:53
and I'm so excited about it.
12:55
So listen, I thank you for giving me
a few minutes of your time.
12:57
God bless you all.
13:00
(Applause)
13:01
God bless you.
13:02
(Applause)
13:03

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About the speaker:

Melvin Russell - Chief of the Community Partnership Division, Baltimore Police Department
Melvin Russell is bringing stakeholders together to work toward the common goal of peace and prosperity for Baltimore City.

Why you should listen

Lt. Colonel Melvin T. Russell is Chief of the Community Partnership Division, Baltimore Police Department. Russell joined The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) in 1979 as a police cadet and graduated from the BPD academy in 1981 as the first and only African American class valedictorian.

Russell worked both as a uniform patrol and then an undercover officer for 20 years before re-emerging as an Eastern District Lieutenant in 2007. In this position, Russell turned the worse midnight patrol shift in the city to the best in 3 months and was promoted to Major of the Eastern District 11 months later. It was during this time as Major that Russell created the non-profit “Transformation Team” (TTT), a grassroots organization of community shareholders that are committed to working together to make a better Baltimore.

In January 2013, Russell was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and created the Community Partnership Division.

More profile about the speaker
Melvin Russell | Speaker | TED.com