Kevin Rector et al., Baltimore Sun, July 14, 2015
City officials said they have again suspended an anti-violence Safe Streets program in East Baltimore, this time after patrol officers raided the program’s Monument Street offices and found seven guns and a “felony amount” of drugs stashed inside.
Police said a robbery investigation led them to the offices, and two employees were among those arrested.
Safe Streets is a grant-funded program housed under the city’s health department that uses ex-felons to help stem crime in several city neighborhoods. The program has been lauded amid recent unrest and a spike in violent crime for keeping violence at a minimum in the neighborhoods where it operates, and some officials have urged its replication all across the city.
The program has also had trouble in the past, overcoming criminal allegations against its employees twice before in 2010 and 2013–and faced criticism over its recruiting practices.
“Safe Streets works because employees are often ex-offenders who have credilbity in the neighborhoods they serve,” Health Commissioner Leana Wen said. “This incident is a reflection on the individuals involved, and should not take away the great successes of Safe Streets and the role it has played in reducing violence.”
In addition to the McElderry Park location, Safe Streets operates in Cherry Hill, Mondawmin and Park Heights.
Unlike other crime initiatives, Safe Streets generally keeps its distance from police to avoid the appearance that information gleaned in its community work is shared with law enforcement. However, a representative from the police department has a vote in hiring decisions.
The program was first adopted in Baltimore in 2007. The majority of Safe Streets funding comes from the federal government, and the city’s health department organizes training for the overseeing community groups.
A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study in 2012 estimated that Safe Streets had reduced fatal shootings by five and other shootings by 35 over three years, and notably cut violence in the neighborhoods with a program. The study compared Safe Streets neighborhoods with other violent parts of the city and controlled for variables like increased police activity.
In 2010, federal authorities tied one of Safe Streets’ East Baltimore sites to the Black Guerrilla Family gang, causing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to freeze funding to two sites so a task force could study the program.
However, a task force appointed by Rawlings-Blake to review the allegations could not substantiate them, and recommended that funding be restored.
Rawlings-Blake followed the suggestion, the funding was restored, and continued to expand the Safe Streets program, run by community groups with taxpayer dollars, federal funding and help from the city health department.
In 2013, the Baltimore Health Department suspended the program in West Baltimore after a second outreach worker there was arrested in less than two weeks–but defended the program as a whole.
“We know that Safe Streets works,” Rawlings-Blake said at the time. “I am not going to let one person destroy that progress.”
As recently as last month, Rawlings-Blake pointed to the four neighborhoods with Safe Streets programs in place–which include historically violent sections of West, East, South and Northwest Baltimore–as a positive sign of progress amid a sharp spike in violence citywide.
Rawlings-Blake said the way the program connects to the community should be replicated. Other city officials said an expansion of Safe Streets in West Baltimore could help reduce crime and improve community relations in the short and long term following the recent unrest in the city after the death of Freddie Gray.
On June 5, Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen touted the Safe Streets model in an opinion article in The Baltimore Sun, saying it is part of a “cure” to violence in the city–citing long stretches without a shooting death in each of the program’s neighborhoods.
Wen also addressed concerns about the program’s formula using ex-offenders as community mediators.
“Some have asked us about the ‘risk’ of employing individuals with criminal backgrounds,” Wen wrote. “We do not see it as a risk but rather as a privilege to give returned citizens a second chance at hope and employment. Our employees are our best assets. They have truly walked in the shoes of the people we are serving.”