Ur­ban League shouldn’t do se­cret sur­veil­lance for po­lice

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

If you know the his­tory of the Greater Bal­ti­more Ur­ban League, it’s easy to un­der­stand why the non­profit that has long ad­vo­cated for equal rights for African Amer­i­cans shouldn’t do se­cret sur­veil­lance for the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment. And why the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pres­i­dent, Tif­fany Ma­jors, found the request so of­fen­sive and quickly shot it down.

The request to get in­volved in covert po­lice op­er­a­tions was made by a City Coun­cil mem­ber, and Ms. Ma­jors was right to dis­miss the idea, though there are oth­ers ways her group can help to make the Se­ton Hill neigh­bor­hood safer.

One of many chap­ters of a larger na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion started to im­prove con­di­tions for black South­ern­ers mi­grat­ing to the big cities of the North, the Ur­ban League grew into the eco­nomic arm of the civil rights move­ment. Its mis­sion was, and still is, to pro­mote eco­nomic self-reliance and op­por­tu­nity for African Amer­i­cans, whether through job and lead­er­ship train­ing or hold­ing cor­po­ra­tions re­spon­si­ble for their dis­crim­i­na­tory hir­ing prac­tices. It also pushes for broader equal­ity is­sues as well.

The Or­chard Street Church build­ing where the Ur­ban League is lo­cated, and where City Coun­cil­man Eric Costello thought was a good place to hide cops, has long been a safe space for the com­mu­nity. Tun­nels un­der the church are be­lieved to be as­so­ci­ated with the Un­der­ground Rail­road and the church a stop on Harriet Tub­man’s jour­ney to free­dom.

Get­ting into the busi­ness of catch­ing crim­i­nals would be a slap in the face of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s his­tory, as well as its present-day mis­sion.

It was groups like the Ur­ban League that were the tar­get of ag­gres­sive po­lice sur­veil­lance tac­tics meant to thwart the ef­fec­tive­ness of the civil rights move­ment dur­ing the ’60s. How would the or­ga­ni­za­tion look join­ing in that prac­tice now?

Not to men­tion that the Ur­ban League needs to con­tinue to feel like a place where the com­mu­nity is com­fort­able com­ing. Whether we like it or not, hav­ing a po­lice pres­ence in a city un­der a con­sent de­cree, in part be­cause of po­lice bru­tal­ity and abuse of power, will not cre­ate that en­vi­ron­ment. It would make the or­ga­ni­za­tion less ef­fec­tive at meet­ing its mis­sion.

This doesn’t mean the Ur­ban League is not or shouldn’t be con­cerned about crime in the area just like the rest of its neigh­bors. I am sure Ms. Ma­jors wants her em­ploy­ees to feel safe walk­ing to their cars in the evenings just like any other em­ployer. She has also said there is no prob­lem with the group work­ing with the po­lice in other ways.

We un­der­stand that Coun­cil­man Costello, who Ms. Ma­jors said came to her with the request, was re­spond­ing to res­i­dents con­cerned about what they say has in ef­fect be­come an open air drug mar­ket. We feel for any­one scared to come out of their front door. This sim­ply wasn’t the right way to ad­dress it. We don’t care how good of a view the League’s build­ing would pro­vide to an apart­ment com­plex po­lice want to tar­get. The request lacked a cer­tain level of cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity and com­pe­tency, and was dis­re­spect­ful to the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Michael Har­ri­son has said he needs com­mu­nity part­ners to ad­dress so­cial and other is­sues that con­trib­ute to crime but fall out­side the law en­force­ment role of the po­lice depart­ment. The depart­ment also needs to de­velop al­liances with these or­ga­ni­za­tions to build trust in the com­mu­nity, which has de­te­ri­o­rated be­cause of high pro­file po­lice bru­tal­ity cases in the last sev­eral years.

That is how the depart­ment should work with groups like the Ur­ban League, rather than en­gag­ing them in their po­lice work. The po­lice depart­ment doesn’t want to be­come a so­cial ser­vices agency, and non­prof­its don’t want to be­come an arm of the po­lice depart­ment ei­ther.

Re­fer way­ward teens to the Ur­ban League’s lead­er­ship youth pro­gram. Many teens in Bal­ti­more don’t have enough to do, which can leave idle time to get into trou­ble. Send ex-of­fend­ers to the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s job train­ing pro­grams. When peo­ple fin­ish their sen­tences but then can’t find a job, they will turn back to crime to feed them­selves and make a liv­ing. Hold com­mu­nity meet­ings at the Ur­ban League head­quar­ters or a ca­reer de­vel­op­ment day for youth on how to be­come a po­lice of­fi­cer. All of this makes for a pro­duc­tive part­ner­ship.

As far as covert sur­veil­lance, con­duct that kind of polic­ing at pri­vate fa­cil­i­ties whose own­ers are com­fort­able with the ar­range­ment.

We are sure there are other ways that the po­lice can tar­get crime in the Se­ton Hill neigh­bor­hood, whether it is in­creas­ing pa­trols or send­ing in un­der­cover of­fi­cers to buy drugs. Covert sur­veil­lance is also still a vi­able op­tion — just leave the Bal­ti­more Ur­ban League out of it.


Tif­fany Ma­jors, pres­i­dent of the his­toric Greater Bal­ti­more Ur­ban League, said she was deeply trou­bled when City Coun­cil­man Eric Costello asked whether the Bal­ti­more po­lice could use the non­profit’s head­quar­ters, lo­cated in a for­mer church, to con­duct covert sur­veil­lance in the Se­ton Hill neigh­bor­hood.

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