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Baltimore faith community, city leaders grapple with killing of Evelyn Player

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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Mayor Brandon Scott and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison meet with Baltimore pastors after the killing of Evelyn Player in Southern Baptist Church.

Baltimore hit a painfully familiar milestone this week: 300 homicides recorded this year. The staggering number came after a particularly heinous killing: Evelyn Player, a 69-year-old grandmother, was found stabbed to death inside her longtime church Tuesday.

The incident sent shockwaves across an already embattled city. Ahead of a Thursday night vigil for Player, Mayor Brandon Scott assembled 14 prominent Black pastors in his executive conference room for an intimate gathering that was part listening session, part grassroots organizing.

“Now is different,” the Democrat told the pastors, referring to the brutal nature of Player’s killing, as well as the homicide of 5-year-old Nivea Anderson, Baltimore’s 300th homicide this year, a day later. “What's happening out there today is not what we're used to. … Folks are literally killing their girlfriend's new boyfriend, solely because she posted a picture with him on Instagram.”

The city has recorded at least 300 homicides each year since 2015, when Baltimore erupted in days-long protests after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. There were 335 recorded killings in 2020 and 348 the year before. The numbers are unlike anything the city has seen before — save for the 1990s, when far more people lived in Baltimore and the city topped 300 murders for eight straight years.

Residents, policing and social issues experts and pundits alike have attributed the bloodshed to a variety of reasons. Some point to the consent decree over the police department, the court enforceable agreement created after BPD was found to have engaged in patterns of unconstitutional policing that has altered how the agency functions. Others blame instability in leadership from political turmoil — the city has seen five different police commissioners and four mayors since 2015. Still others cite massive BPD spending, relative to the city’s investments in social services such as housing and jobs training.

The pastors gathered before Scott, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (MONSE) Director Shantay Jackson connected the unabated violence to their own slew of factors, from untreated trauma and senses of hopelessness to environmental conditions that signal a lack of respect to communities, such as abandoned cars and illegal dumping that remain uncollected for months.

Many spoke of widely varying relationships between their communities and local police, ranging from faith to mistrust. One pastor mentioned a close relationship with the former major of the Eastern district: he had the officer’s phone number on hand and could reach him within three minutes.

Now, when he wants to connect with police, he dials 911. Last month he called the number when a fight broke out at a funeral; it took between 15 and 20 minutes for police to arrive.

“I want to be able to say, ‘Hey, Major, we need this,’ ” the pastor said. “That would be my suggestion: bringing the majors back to the churches and saying, ‘Hey, do you have these pastors’ cell phone numbers?’ Because we could then build that relationship.”

Others noted that residents are understandably distrustful of police, given the consent decree and painful history. They suggested that BPD bolster anti-bias training for cadets.

Pastor Corey Barnes remembered the pre-pandemic attempts that one local officer made to connect with his church: he’d attend some services.

One Sunday he stopped the officer and asked if everything was OK. “I said, ‘I see you guys are here so I just want to make sure that you’re good.’ He says, ‘Pastor, if you don't mind, we want to stay for a little bit longer…if your parishioners see you embracing us and accepting us, it makes our job so much easier.’ ’’

Chief among the pastors’ concerns in the wake of Player’s killing is safety. Congregants who were already dismayed by the trash, blight and violence found outside the doors of their churches, they told the mayor.

Particularly worrying, Rev. Donald Wright said, is the safety of older Black women, who, as Evelyn Player did, often carry their churches.

“Most of the churches are made up of sisters. And the reality is that the sisters are normally over 50,” he said. “One of the challenges that I've heard over the last two days is: ‘Pastor, are we even having church Sunday?’ ”

Pastor Antoine Burton concurred: “It is really causing us to really look at our strategy, how we are enforcing how we handle things from a security standpoint.”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said he’ll work with church leaders who want security assessments.

The pastors also connected their communities' unmet needs — healthcare, education, and career pathways — to the violence. They praised the Scott administration’s commitment to tackling the social determinants of crime, but said that different city agencies and community leaders need to demonstrate unity. “They need to see it,” Rev. Stacey Smith said.

She suggested that the city divert both social workers and police to the areas around homicides to connect with residents: “Immediately deploy somebody into that area, galvanize that community. Because what it does is show whomever is doing it: this community and police are watching.”

The other key resource is outreach to people who may engage in crime, she added.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison spoke candidly about the challenges of violence prevention, saying that residents errantly believe that disputes in the drug trade fuel most of Baltimore’s homicides. 

“While many people are selling drugs in the city. I'm certain you all see it. You can probably see it from the front door of your church. Many people are selling drugs. Most of our shootings and murders are not drug related. The person pulling the trigger might be a drug dealer. But the reason he pulled the trigger is not about drugs. It's about conflict. The majority is about conflict. It's crimes of passion, crimes of premeditation.”

Jackson, the director of MONSE, said that violence intervention program Safe Streets currently covers 2.6 of Baltimore’s 90 square miles. The organization will receive more funding through American Rescue Plan Act money; Jackson said that such grassroots organizations will have concentrated presences in neighborhoods that have experienced shootings for 45 days.

“We're bringing in the organizations that we know are already on the ground and have credibility and respect and understand the perspectives and the lived experiences of folks that are in these spaces,” she said.

She also highlighted another portion of the mayor’s crime plan: a coordinated neighborhood stabilization response “that is rooted in making sure that we address traumatic events before they happen, while they're happening and after they happen in ways that mobilize not just city agencies, but community based assets as well for a long period of time.”

Commissioner Harrison compared the crime plan to failed policing strategies, like broken windows policing.

“We are not any longer giving aspirin and Tylenol and Advil for a headache, which is a symptom of a disease,” he said. “Shifting the deployment with police is like shifting from Advil to Tylenol. … We're going to change your lifestyle to cure the disease instead of always treating the symptom.”

Jackson also pointed to several other new programs, including one that diverts 911 calls describing suicidal ideation to social workers. Another, funded by ARPA money, will connect residents returning home from prison to jobs.

Scott, who has pledged to reduce shootings by 20% each year he is in office, acknowledged that he’s not satisfied, saying that people responsible for Baltimore’s killings were failed by many people and institutions on many different levels, leaving incalculable ripples of devastation and loss in their wake.

“Quite frankly, us, the older Black men, we dropped the ball, right?” he told the pastors. “We allowed them to get to this place where we didn't invest in them enough for them to truly value themselves. And now we have to help rebuild them.”

Several pastors categorized the meeting as progress, saying faith communities can be valuable partners in the fight against violence.

“The police won't solve the problem. The church won't solve the problem,” Pastor Mark Montgomery said. “But all of the stakeholders from the health department, public safety, the school system and the grassroots might. Today was really a commitment to partner with the grassroots efforts to change our community,” he said. “And so that it won't be sudden results, it won't be immediate. But [Martin Luther King, Jr.] said that it will be incremental.”

Hours later, the pastors, city officials and hundreds of Evelyn Player’s fellow congregants and mourners from across the city arrived at Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. Through the wind and rain, they marched around the blocks surrounding, praying and singing.

Rev. Donte Hickman, pastor of the 4,000-member Southern Baptist Church, said the vigil marked the first time members have gathered together in person in more than a year and a half due to the pandemic. He said the church needed to show that Player’s death would not stop them from keeping the faith and restoring their community.

“We are the church. We are the community, together. And the culprit that did this in our house does not represent our community,” he said.

Listeners affirmed: “He does not!”

“This community is filled with good people,” he continued. “This community is filled with loving people, this community is filled with people who want the same things as everybody else: safety, prosperity, affordable housing, opportunities.”

As a rotation of pastors led the group in prayer, Alethea Finch, Player’s daughter, said officials have kept her updated and supported during the worst week of her life -- and that she’s unable to fathom why someone would target her mother.

“I just don’t understand why. I may never understand why. But I trust in God and trusting in that faith just keeps me going,” she said. “I have my moments when I'm sad. Today is one of those days.”

“It’s my mother, my best friend, and I miss her so much.”