East Baltimore anti-violence group work suspended after guns, drugs found in raid

Safe Streets suspended, employees arrested after police raid anti-violence program offices

City officials have suspended operations of the Safe Streets anti-violence program in East Baltimore after police officers found seven guns and drugs stashed inside the Monument Street office.

Police said a robbery investigation led them to the office, and two employees were among those arrested. The suspension sidelines the program's work in East Baltimore at a time when gun violence has been spiking.

Safe Streets, a grant-funded program under the city's Health Department, uses ex-felons in an effort to stem crime. The program has been lauded for keeping violence at a minimum in the four neighborhoods where it operates, and some officials have urged its replication across the city.

The program has had trouble in the past, with offices previously suspended in 2010 and 2013 amid criminal allegations against employees. It has also faced criticism over its recruiting practices.

"Safe Streets works because employees are often ex-offenders who have credibility in the neighborhoods they serve," Health Commissioner Leana Wen said Tuesday. "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."

The three other Safe Streets sites in the city remain open. Wen said the Health Department will conduct a "full debriefing" on the entire program.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said, "The Mayor remains supportive of the program and the effective way it has been able to reach many people in our city and reduce crime. But she recognizes the program must be vigilant with respect to the activities of the program's participants and staff members."

The city had been in talks with the Abell Foundation about creating a new Safe Streets zone in Sandtown-Winchester, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested. His death from a spinal cord injury sustained in police custody sparked protests, rioting and looting. The foundation approved a $180,000 matching grant to help fund the expansion, but the city has not made a final decision.

Police said this week's investigation began when they were called about 2:26 a.m. Monday to the intersection of Hillen and Forrest streets, just south of East Monument Street, where a man said he was just robbed at gunpoint by two men in a gray SUV.

Soon after, an officer spotted the vehicle parked in the 2300 block of E. Monument and saw men dart inside the Safe Streets office. When officers eventually raided the office, they found guns, heroin, cocaine, and other items used in the manufacturing and sale of drugs, including cutting agents and scales, police said.

Nine people were arrested at the site, including two Safe Streets employees, who Wen said have been terminated.

They were identified as Artez Harris, who had been a "violence interrupter" for Safe Streets since September 2013, and Ricky Evans, who had worked for Safe Streets since February.

Both were charged with drug and gun offenses and were jailed. Neither had an attorney listed in online court records.

Court records show Harris, 37, and Evans, 35, were co-defendants in a drug case in 2007. Harris pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison, with all but two years suspended, while all charges against Evans were dropped.

Evans has been charged twice with murder, and both times acquitted. In 1999 he was found not guilty of conspiracy to murder for the killing of 21-year-old Harry Brown in the first block of N. Streeper St. He was charged with first-degree murder in another case in 2002, and three years later was found not guilty.

Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said police will be running ballistics tests on the recovered guns to see if they were used in incidents of violence in the city.

James Bond, the president and CEO of Living Classrooms, which oversees the East Baltimore program, called Wen's decision to suspend the program pending a review "appropriate," but said he still believes in the program's model and looks forward to restarting the work.

"We would hope that this would not overshadow the great success the program has had in the past," Bond said.

This year alone, Safe Streets East's interrupters — including Harris and Evans — have facilitated 136 "remediations" of incidents that likely would have resulted in violence without their intervention, Bond said.

"They were integral in interrupting violence in this community," Bond said of Harris and Evans. "They were very skilled at that."

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.

In 2010, federal authorities tied Safe Streets' East Baltimore site to the Black Guerrilla Family gang, causing Rawlings-Blake to freeze funding for two sites. A task force appointed by the mayor to review the allegations could not substantiate them, and funding was restored.

The program's West Baltimore site was suspended three years later, after two outreach workers were arrested in less than two weeks.

Violence has spiked following Gray's death and charges against six officers involved in his arrest, drawing calls for Safe Streets to be replicated in other city neighborhoods. Rawlings-Blake last month pointed to the four neighborhoods with Safe Streets programs — including the site in Cherry Hill, which went more than a year without a homicide — as a success.

Wen also touted Safe Streets as part of a "cure" to violence in the city.

"Some have asked us about the 'risk' of employing individuals with criminal backgrounds," Wen wrote in an opinion article in The Baltimore Sun. "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."

Wen diverged slightly from that stance Tuesday, saying that "there is a risk for re-offense" by employees with a criminal past. But she maintained that there is potential for great reward.

In addition to Harris and Evans, charges were brought against seven others.

Barak Olds, 25, and Darren Brown, 23, have both been charged with assault and robbery in the initial incident that led police to the Safe Streets office. Both are in custody. Neither had an attorney listed in online court records.

Also charged with a range of crimes are Tavon Howard, 22; D'Aries Legette, 22; Gerald Reed, 19; David Warren, 23; and Sherri Jordan, 28.

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin George and Christina Jedra contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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