Longtime community organizer Ray Kelly was recently awarded the Monsignor Arthur F. Valenzano Joyful Servant Award by the Catholic Charities of Baltimore. Kelly, executive director of the advisory group Citizens Policing Project, started as a grassroots activist and became an important liaison for federal officials implementing the Baltimore Police Department’s consent decree.

As a newcomer to the city, I wanted to learn about what got Kelly interested in this work and what the award meant to him. An edited version of our conversation follows.

What was it like growing up in West Baltimore?

Ray Kelly: Baltimore is a tough city. I definitely wasn’t privileged in any way as a kid. We struggled. We lived in the inner city. I think, for me, the 1980s were the most influential years, because that’s when a lot of young Black men were kind of faced with those initial choices. How are you going to survive and provide for yourself and present decent so you can go to school and eat and still not get sucked into the life that we were seeing? And I grew up in the 1980s when there was an actual crack epidemic here. I saw our whole community get devastated and, I don’t know, I chose the street life. I kind of went the wrong path, even though I had that Catholic upbringing. I made that choice about sustainability and this was a, I don’t know, it’s a viable path to sustainable income in Baltimore City is selling drugs and street life, and so I definitely went the wrong path.

I’ve learned that you have to be real cognizant about how you move about in Baltimore. I tell people all the time. In Baltimore City, things are so deeply rooted, that it’s not about a crime problem, it’s not about a violence problem — it’s always been a pain problem. That’s getting to the root of the problems in Baltimore is getting to the root of the pain. Because now we’ve had generations of people in our communities that for some reason are in so much pain that they have to find a need to be anesthetized, and that is the root of all evil in Baltimore City, is overwhelming addiction issues that we have here.

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We have like 50,000 confirmed addicts in Baltimore City — that’s almost a tenth of our population. Unless we address that, we continue to have that crime issue, that violence issue. We have our good days and years, and our bad years, but for real, until we address the pain that these communities feel because of disinvestment, redlining, oppression, whatever you want to call it, our communities, that pain has never been addressed.

(Kelly was born in Upton in 1970 and moved to Sandtown-Winchester in 1978.)

What did Sandtown look like in 1978?

Highly populated. Streets like North Avenue, and all those houses boarded up now. There were no empty houses then. There were all families. Busted out businesses were actually open when I grew up there. It was a completely different environment. There was still the struggle. There was still pain. There was even open-air drug activity way back in the 1970s. But when crack came, 1984, 1985, it kind of hit us real hard. That was the fast way for people to get rid of that pain. It was like a booming business where there was already established street trades. That became a viable option for a lot of young Black men. That also escalated the crime levels that prompted “zero tolerance” and pretty much indicted our whole community and the city, and that still hasn’t changed.

I grew up in a West Baltimore that had never been repaired from the riots of 1968, even though we had residents. As I came into the picture of life, we were already on that consistent decline. I tell people all the time: Recognize that the things that I advocate for and the legislation we’ve been fighting for for the 15 years I’ve been doing this is the same legislation they were fighting for back in the days of Medgar Evers or Emmett Till or Martin Luther King Jr. This has been intentional stagnation of progression in our culture for hundreds of years.

When did you become interested in community organizing around policing reform?

I was released from prison in 1999. It was then that I kind of had my rededication to the church and started doing work with the community and just outreach at our church and things of that nature. And then I had a relapse in the 2000s — 2004 or 2005; just succumbed to whatever pressure was around back then. And then I can remember, that relapse subsequently led to me being arrested and having a long trial. I can remember when I was arrested and just going into the system, the conversations people were having, and people were once again talking about, “Once I get out of here, I’m going to catch the subway up to Upton and somebody’s going to look out for me.” I just felt like then, they were right. My community is where you can come if you want to get high, and that’s what I felt like I had to change.

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I grew up, there were stores around Pennsylvania Avenue, it was about shopping. If somebody saw you there, they felt like you had money. Now, because of the drug trade, if somebody sees you on Pennsylvania Avenue, where businesses are sparse and the open-air drug activity is crazy, people think you’re using drugs. I just wanted to change that dynamic and have that community we had when we were growing up, where you could walk up and down and go to the movies. I knew the first thing that had to be done is to make it safe.

The major roadblock was the role that police played in all of it. Everyone saw the police as the enemy. There was so much corruption going on, safety wasn’t really a conversation people were having.

We had all kinds of obstacles: systemic obstacles. We were working with a group one day and the next day one of their sons are being harassed [by police]. There were so many issues with getting that collaboration between community and police. For accountability, if you’re going to hold us accountable, then we have to be able to hold you accountable. That’s what kind of prompted my reform efforts. To just find a mechanism to hold the police accountable, and we started with Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board. So that was the mechanism in place here that held the police accountable to the residents.

It was like swimming uphill in a river of rocks. It was like an impossibility. Then Freddie Gray happened. I was then CEO of the No Boundaries Coalition. And then we were like the only community engaged group actively trying to have some kind of relationship with the police department and even though when Freddie Gray happened, for us, it was all about accountability, and this is what we’ve been saying. It kind of thrust us to the front of the table. For me, it just felt like this was an opportunity for us to elevate that community voice in a process that has never included the impact of the population, so we started collecting those stories and working with the [U. S. Department of Justice] during their investigation. We eventually had this big community meeting partnered with the DOJ and drafted a People’s Decree of Central West Baltimore before the consent decree. That was a big thing.

Did you feel like you were under any kind of pressure in that role with the Department of Justice?

It wasn’t a lot of pressure, because when the DOJ did their independent investigation, we were also doing our own story collecting. And we decided to let them see what we were doing. People didn’t really trust the DOJ, but we invited them to these different conversations. When we did interviews, we gave them, with the permission of the people that we interviewed, the information, the transfers. I did 36 interviews of the 39 and I gave them the audio transcript of them, with the participants’ permission and the agreement not to reveal their names.

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They [federal officials] saw this wasn’t a new thing. It got to the point in the relationship where the DOJ asked me, “What would you like to see in a reform of the Baltimore Police Department?” For me, I’ve always been this Catholic, bring everyone together. “No, you can’t ask me. You’ve got to ask everybody, I want to see something different than somebody in Bolton Hill, so you’ve got to ask everybody, get a consensus.”

The lead investigator of the DOJ at the time was feet-to-the-streets with me. I think that’s what had the biggest impact on how they moved forward with Baltimore was we were able to, for lack of a better term, dress the DOJ down and let them see what really goes on in our community. There were thousands of informal conversations that influenced the DOJ in 2015 and 2016.

Are you happy with how the consent decree process has played out so far?

I am happy with what the consent decree says. I know that the consent decree is kind of the blueprint for public safety and actual better community and police relationships. But I get frustrated with, for one, the amount of time that the police are given to actually make the changes. And then, when they actually have, in my view, a blatant violation of the spirit of the consent decree, then there are no consequences. I feel like the court gives every concession that the process has to the police department. And the impacted community, we want some semblance of urgency, because we’re talking about civil rights violations and human rights violations. The people want to see something now.

Even now, with the surge in crime and violence, the police department is still having this staffing issue that we’re talking about here, as that’s like, a reason why things aren’t getting done the way they should be getting done. All right, we’ve been saying that now for five years, we get it. What’s the alternative? Let’s reassess, how do we rework this now to actually have an effective policing mechanism in Baltimore City? I understood the complications in the beginning with the mayor getting indicted, then the commissioner getting indicted. In the beginning, we had every obstacle you could have. Now we’re three years into [police Commissioner Michael] Harrison, as stable as can be, and we keep talking about how we’ve written all these policies and done all this training. I’m ready to see something different on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Do you agree with consent decree Judge James Bredar that federal authorities should be doing more to help BPD recruit more officers?

I think the spirit of the consent decree is, “Look, it’s going to take money to get this done,” and I agree. You’ve got to create some kind of incentive to work through this change. You can’t keep thrusting people into this situation. There’s not a real appeal to policing in Baltimore City. It’s the money. That’s what I recognize.

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How do you square that with some of the discomfort people in the city feel around police funding?

We’ve got to do what we say first. We have to recognize that the police budget is so inflated because all the other components of the city’s budgets have been stripped for law enforcement. There has to be federal assistance if this country actually wants to see change, and the country should invest in it. Call it reparations or whatever the case may be, just investing in the police is not going to be the answer. You’ve got to make an investment in these communities that are overpoliced to influence the change. So I feel there should be some kind of federal initiative to bring more police officers into Baltimore, recruit more individuals. I’m not saying increase the budget in any way.

The key to defunding the police is to diminish the need for policing. If we, all of the sudden, drop the necessary 400 or so officers that they’re short on the street, but we don’t address the issues that actually lead to crime but lead to violence or whatever the case may be, then we’re not changing anything. We’re just throwing money at the police department again.

There’s got to be a reassessment, because the last staffing assessment happened in 2016. But really, since 2015, we’ve gone from 13,000 arrests a year to 3,500 arrests a year. So let’s reassess what we’re doing to address crime and then decide how many officers we really need.

Once again, for me, it’s just the city itself’s lack of investment into these efforts for decades. On the police issue, it’s a both thing. What we are asking for is a better police department, and that’s an upgrade. You upgrade your phone? It costs more. You upgrade your car? It costs more. So in order to get people that believe and are willing to work for this new culture of policing, we may have to pay more. But then, if this concept is correct, we don’t need that many. So it doesn’t really change the budget.

What does receiving the Joyful Servant award mean to you?

I’ve won hundreds of awards. I’ve been recognized hundreds of times. But most people see that activism, that advocacy, that progression on this police reform and public safety work, and what’s lost in all of that is the why. And the how. I got into this work, which is, the church, the foundation of my work is being a steward to the people in my community, and this award kind of recognizes the why and the what.

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Everybody knows about the Peoples’ Decree, and they know I was an agent of the court, but no one knows that I am chair of the pastoral council and I’m a devout Catholic and I filter everything through my faith. And that’s what the Joyful Servant award kind of lifts up the why I do this work. No matter how aggressive I may speak on these issues, I am still rooted in the faith, and I try to do what I was taught in the church, because the church was there for me. So I think the continuation and the injection of faith in these processes is what helps move it forward, because I honestly believe that I can influence change in the role that I play. And to believe in something that to this point, in this country, has never been seen, takes faith.

Charity comes from the word “church” and that’s the root of it all, so we can’t get lost in what we’re supposed to do as a church. I mean, Jesus made it clear on the Sermon on the Mount: what we should do, who we should serve, and how we should conduct ourselves when we are doing it. And, to me, that’s the discipline of being a good Christian and a good Catholic.

This story has been updated to correct the name of Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the Baltimore Police Department's federal consent decree.