DETECTIVE RYAN DIENER is navigating working in the police department and living in a high-crime neighborhood. The 36-year-old homicide detective joined the police force 14 years ago. Convicted about racial reconciliation and serving the poor, he also joined New Song Community Church (Presbyterian Church in America) and then moved into Sandtown a decade ago. He mentors teenagers in the neighborhood through a Young Life Bible study, and now he’s an elder at New Song.
“I work and I do church, and that’s kind of it,” said Diener, who isn’t married. “It’s enough.”
The violence from his daily job has intersected with his personal life. One boy who was in his Bible study, Taymen Brown, was murdered in Sandtown last summer at age 22. Diener had known Brown since his early teens. His case is unsolved.
Right now Diener is the primary investigator on a homicide that took place one block from his house. He knew extended family members of the victim and thought because he had built so many relationships in the neighborhood over the years that he would quickly find leads on the case. But so far, nothing.
At Diener’s desk in the homicide unit, he has a Bible by his computer, a taped-up note listing his primary cases, and accordion folders for cases currently in court. One of the detectives calls him “Rev.” A sleeping bag is rolled up under his desk, and he is usually in the office well before his shift begins. Potential witnesses come in and out of the office for interviews, and one wall has a board with the names of victims printed out in dry erase marker.
‘With the violence going on around you, it is frustrating, at times over-whelming. … We take it personally when we’re not able to solve a case.’ —Diener
I asked Diener why he thought the homicide rate was so high. He wouldn’t attempt an answer. He repeated my question to another detective, who shook his head. There were too many variables: ages, locations, times, life circumstances. Even if the victim was part of a gang, the murder might be over a girlfriend or a personal beef. As people take the law into their own hands, more are carrying guns, so situations can escalate into violence more quickly, the detective suggested.
Diener led eight homicide investigations last year, well above the recommended caseload. For him, the hardest part of the job isn’t witnessing gore every day, but feeling the burden of solving the crime on behalf of grieving family members.
“With the violence going on around you, it is frustrating, at times overwhelming,” said Diener just before starting his evening shift. “No one is sitting around eating bonbons. … We take it personally when we’re not able to solve a case.”
LT. COL. RUSSELL, a 37-year veteran of the Baltimore police force who was born and raised in Baltimore, believes he has an answer to the homicide problem: More community trust will lead to lower crime. He put that principle to work when he was commander of the city’s Eastern District in 2008, using community relationships to drive down crime rates in a violent area. He built relationships with gang leaders.
Now Russell, who is also a pastor, oversees the department’s community collaboration division, where his officers spend time building relationships all over the city. But he has struggled to get personnel or the proper structure to integrate community policing into the entire department. Most police leaders these days spent key parts of their career in the “zero tolerance” era of the 1990s, he said, and don’t know how to do community policing.
“Old heads like me, we came up when everyone was a community police officer,” Russell said. “Baltimore is bankrupt of relational equity. My job is to restore that.”
The Baltimore Police Department already has difficult work, but it has created some of its own trust problems. Federal prosecutors recently indicted seven officers for racketeering, among other charges. The officers allegedly stopped residents and stole money from them.
And last year the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released an investigation showing that the police department had a pattern of making unconstitutional, discriminatory stops and using excessive force. In response, the city signed on to a series of police reforms with the DOJ, an agreement called a consent decree.
When Jeff Sessions became U.S. attorney general, he tried to halt Baltimore’s consent decree amid a review of Obama-era policies. The city and the police department objected. Mayor Catherine Pugh said halting the decree would “have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish.” In April a federal judge ruled the reforms should continue because the DOJ had already signed the agreement.