The faith community, Exile, `Believe' -- and hope

March 09, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

IF YOU'RE armed, running the streets of Baltimore and beating murder charges, people may be reluctant to tell police they know you, much less testify against you in court.

It is therefore not surprising that murder charges against Tyrone Beane, 18, were dropped last week for lack of a witness.

Mr. Beane smiled broadly. It was the second time he'd escaped such a charge. The missing witness this time? His sister. Family members cheered as he was led out of Circuit Court.

Here was violence as a family value, violence as a way of life in a city where hundreds are killed with handguns and, increasingly, with "edged weapons" -- knives, box-cutters, glass. Criminals, it sometimes seems, always have the edge even when it's a gun.

But just below the surface of madness, a deep respect for life and community struggle for recognition.

Baltimore's new police commissioner, Kevin P. Clark, an African-American, met Wednesday morning with Baltimore's religious establishment, more than 125 ministers who came to a breakfast arranged by Mayor Martin O'Malley at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Baltimore. Several of these pastors lead congregations of four or five thousand, a segment of the city with enormous potential for good. Both sides -- the policeman and the preachers -- need each other desperately, and said so.

The ministers need the commissioner because young black men are dying in the street or lining up as cadres in the drug markets.

Commissioner Clark appealed for mentoring of Tyrone-Beanes-in-the-making. And, before he spoke, he asked one of his hosts to pray then and there for one of his officers, seriously injured the night before, his legs crushed. He also invited them to a police training session so they could see his men dealing with guns and edged weapons. These men of God seemed taken aback but intrigued.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. finally convinced U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio that Baltimore needs Project Exile.

An uncompromising enforcement tool, it sends convicted Beanes to distant federal prisons. It focuses on gun crimes, a scourge in Baltimore -- but its impact could reach beyond guns. If the criminals see some of their cohorts headed to jail -- as sophisticated as many of them are -- they are likely to be more careful about arming themselves.

Some brave soul actually did testify against Tyrone Beane in a separate trial several weeks ago. He had put a gun to the head of a young woman and fired four times. The weapon misfired. The courts did not. A witness appeared and he was convicted. He could get up to 70 years in prison.

Mayor O'Malley pushes his "Believe" campaign at every opportunity. If people are cheering murderers, their own children included, they don't believe life can be different -- or they believe terrorizing others will have no consequences. Certainly not Exile.

At the New Shiloh breakfast, the mayor said trends indicate that 800 Baltimore 12-year-olds will have two narcotics arrests by the end of this year. The police can't divert them without the help of ministers and families who don't cheer murderers.

The ministers got a packet of materials describing "Baltimore Rising," an O'Malley program for at-risk 12-to-17-year olds. Thirty-two churches have agreed to provide mentoring and social services.

What else can we do? one of the ministers asked.

"Get closer to us," Commissioner Clark said. "When people see that you trust us, we're there."

Those who put the breakfast meeting together hoped the new African-American police commissioner could speak more honestly about the reality of crime and the difficulty of police work. One minister told Commissioner Clark he'd been arrested one night when he intervened in a police matter. He got no sympathy: You didn't know enough to intervene, the commissioner said abruptly. No one questioned that suggestion, quite the contrary.

"I've been through right many police commissioners," said the Rev. A. C. D. Vaughn, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church, most of them brought "heartache or heartbreak. ... I even had to put up with Agnew," he said, a reference to Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, who accused the ministers of tolerating violence in the streets after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

"So many people we've hired to be public servants," he said, "have made servants of us."

Is it possible they might serve each other?

With Commissioner Clark, Project Exile and "Baltimore Rising" -- not to speak of 125 powerful pastors -- you had a foundation for believing.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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