When drug dealers and prostitutes camped outside Eastern United Methodist Church last fall, the Rev. Lena Marie Dennis met with Baltimore police Maj. Melvin Russell and other faith leaders and came up with a unique plan.

The congregation would march around the church seven times, carrying banners, praying and proclaiming that they were taking back the block. It worked, Dennis said. Soon the dealers and hookers moved on.

On Friday, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts and Russell announced an effort to build faith-based partnerships across the city, which organizers hope will embolden worshipers to reach out beyond their walls. Police believe the initiative will also help improve relationships in communities that sometimes see them as a foreign and threatening presence.

"Most of our churches have a tremendous amount of credibility," Batts said.

The commissioner recently promoted Russell to lieutenant colonel, in large part on the reputation he built by working with ministers, rabbis and priests as the leader of the Eastern District. He's heading a newly created unit responsible for working with spiritual organizations, businesses and former inmates re-entering society.

In East Baltimore, Russell said he learned years ago that police can also help churches build community rapport.

An assistant pastor himself, Russell said he was taken aback by a drug dealer he spoke with who told him that many saw churches as no better than crack or heroin peddlers. The perception was that churches sucked up the community's money through tithes and offerings but gave nothing back.

As relations between residents, religious leaders and police improved, Russell said, the difference was clear.

Home to 47 homicides in 2007, the Eastern District has historically been recognized as one of the city's most violent. Russell took command of the district in 2008, and the homicide count dropped to 38. In 2011, it was down to 28.

Last year, Russell said, the total number of shootings declined for the third consecutive year, but the district saw 37 killings. That was the most in any city police district, a reminder of the difficulties that the new unit will face, even with successful community cooperation.

Jim Nolan, an associate professor at West Virginia University who focuses on crime and social control, said partnerships with places of worship are an effective long-term strategy, especially in cities. Pastors often provide police with the emotional pulse of communities, which can help officers decide the best methods to reach often distrustful residents.

"When police act as if neighbors need to be dependent on them to protect them, they come up with their own strategies, which involve a lot of arrests and sweeping the corners," said Nolan, a former Wilmington, Del., police officer. "But many neighborhoods don't like the police and don't want them to come."

As part of the initiative in Baltimore, police are hoping to strengthen information-gathering on the streets, something Batts said could have helped control gang skirmishes that flared up last fall and resulted in a string of shootings and killings.

About 25 faith leaders attended Friday's initial meeting at the Humanim nonprofit center in the American Brewery building. After an opening prayer, attendees tackled an agenda that included relationship-building, ways to support released or paroled prisoners and "increasing prayer and serving beyond the church walls."

Police hope the meetings continue monthly and even more frequently on smaller scales between neighborhood religious leaders and the police commanders who oversee the same blocks.

The move toward strengthening the bonds between police and faith leaders was just one facet of a new "community policing division" that Batts created last month as part of a broad reshuffling of the agency's command staff. Batts, who took over the department in the fall, tapped new leadership for four patrol districts and the homicide unit and created units focused on community relations and gangs.

The community unit, which will be paid for and staffed using existing department resources, has "reached out to every single denomination," Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. "Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, every one of them."

While partnerships with Baltimore police and churches aren't new, Batts found Russell's work with congregations in the Eastern District exemplary and wanted to replicate it citywide. The commissioner said he knows the value of churches for police from his time as a police chief in California.

"It has worked for him in his area," Batts said, "and it has worked for me in Oakland and it worked for me in Long Beach."

Early on in East Baltimore, Russell asked some of the 120 places of worship in his district to "come outside of those [church] walls," reaching out to drug houses or homes marked by repeated domestic violence.

Pastors bought in and began "prayer walks" that broke down communication barriers between residents, police and churches. Residents began sharing prayer requests and their needs with church members, who passed on those requests to police walking beside them. Police could then call on various nonprofit and governmental services for help.

"What you began to see was transformation in the community," Russell said.

The Rev. Rodney Hudson, pastor of Ames Memorial United Methodist Church in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, is hoping for positive results citywide. He already works closely with Western District officers, sharing information and holding joint community meetings.

"As a faith leader, I view police as having special God-ordered authority to keep peace and order," he said.

That's crucial in a neighborhood such as Sandtown, he said, where he's seen the effects of violent family disputes spill into his church. On one occasion, he ministered to the families of a murder suspect and victim in the same crime — a tough situation.

Just as police can help him, he said, he can help officers and detectives understand neighborhood and family dynamics.