ESSEX — St. Stephens AME Church and the Baltimore chapter of crime prevention nonprofit Guardian Angels hosted a meeting Saturday for community members, local legislators and police leaders to discuss ways to make Essex and surrounding neighborhoods safer.

The meeting responded to recent high-profile incidents of violence in the area. Last Sunday, a string of connected shootings left five dead, including two customers at the Royal Farms on Middleborough Road. And late Wednesday night, a family argument in Rosedale ended with two dead and an 8-year-old in the hospital.

Pastor Christopher Burnett said that shooting early Sunday morning sent a shockwave through the congregation because one of the victims was a member. Others lived in the apartment complex where the perpetrator took his own life after torching his apartment.

“All on a Sunday morning, before we were getting ready to trust God in a greater way,” he said. “It becomes hard to trust God in a greater way when the people who God puts in place aren’t prepared to do what they’re supposed to do.”

It was sunny out, and about 50 people gathered in the parking lot behind the church. As Burnett looked around the crowd, he said he believed God was putting the right people in place to make something good happen.

Marcus Strider Dent, regional director of Guardian Angels Baltimore, grew up in Essex with his twin brother Angelo Taps Dent. A majority of folks who have volunteered with the local Guardian Angels chapter since its founding in 2006, he added, have been from Essex, and so they are committed to supporting the well being of the community, Dent said.

He explained that Guardian Angels had been discussing an initiative to bolster public safety in the area for years, but put their plans on hold amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent incidents of violence, he said, led them to rekindle hopes of building a coalition of community members under a shared goal of safer streets.

Before inviting others up to speak, Dent stressed that making the community safer is not a solo mission — it’s not something any one person or group can take on unilaterally.

“We can’t fix it as individuals, but we can fix it together,” he said. “We all have a specific role in making Essex a better place.”

County Executive John Olszewski, Jr. said there was something significant about gathering the day before Easter, adding that he stood alongside other leaders and community members to seek a kind of rebirth or renewal in Essex.

“When we bring together the angels in government, the faith community and community leadership, we have all the tools that we need,” he said. “You have the full support and commitment of not just our police department, but all of Baltimore County, standing alongside you in solidarity.”

Dent passed the spotlight over to the police leadership for a few words, introducing Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt as somebody he has previously worked with in Baltimore City to ‘help get things done.’

For Hyatt, a key step in making neighborhoods safer is working with folks in those neighborhoods, and particularly stressed a desire to see more young people getting involved.

This summer, Hyatt hopes to resume the department’s community walks — opportunities for residents and community leaders to meet with police and county officials — which were put on hold throughout the pandemic.

“We stand behind all of you,” she said. “We want Essex to be the best that it can be.”

The conversation reignited at a crucial moment at the national and state level — the violence in Essex last Sunday was one of more than 20 mass shootings which have occurred around the country since eight people died in a series of high-profile shootings in Atlanta on March 16, renewing questions about federal gun policy. Meanwhile, legislators in Annapolis are poised to pass a landmark package that would broadly reform policing across the state.

District 6 Senator Johnny Ray Salling and Delegate Ric Metzgar also spoke, both praising faith communities and specifically St. Stephens AME for their work to support the community and for hosting the gathering at hand.

Salling did not address the status of police legislation in the state assembly. Like Hyatt, he emphasized the importance of folks speaking up for the needs of their communities.

“We want to hear what you have to say, because that’s the only way we can make a difference,” Salling said. “Let’s make a difference — all of us together.”

Metzgar got a similar point across with a metaphor. He recalled putting together a puzzle of the state of Maryland with his colleagues, noticing that a piece was missing and finally discovering it right in plain sight.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “Put yourselves together. Tell your neighbor — you are a piece of the puzzle. If we have a problem, there’s always a solution, and the solution is that we all work together.”

Some members of the community spoke, one of whom was Doretta Thompson, a lifelong Essex resident, remembered the Essex of her youth as a beautiful place and loving community.

“For me, it’s heartbreaking to see the changes that have come,” she said, adding that at 83, she doesn’t feel that the neighborhood is safe. “To hear all about the killing and shooting and everything — it’s just terrifying.”

That said, she spoke out with optimism for the future.

“I just want to let y’all know that Essex is still a beautiful place,” she said. “All we’ve got to do is get together — and when we see something, say something.”

Another community member, Harry, charged Pastor Burnett with bringing more church youth into the efforts for public safety — and Burnett seemed more than down with the idea.

“What we’ve heard is that people are indeed ready to see something different,” he said before closing out the meeting with a prayer. “We have to put work behind those words.

Dent said he was disappointed more folks didn’t turn out, but hopes that more will get involved as the one meeting grows into a broader initiative to boost public safety in Essex. As the meeting winded down, he encouraged folks to get in touch with the Guardian Angels to lend their support and to attend future meetings — dates to be announced — with family and friends.

“Talk to your neighbors, talk to your friends, talk to your kids,” he said. “We want everybody involved. We want to start making progress, putting some procedures in place and making Essex a better place.”

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