Venture out into East Baltimore's McElderry Park neighborhood after a shooting and you're likely to come across Gardnel Carter, a hulking, 48-year-old man who spent two decades in prison for murder.
Along with a crew of men with similar backgrounds, dressed in matching orange and black jackets, he mingles with drug dealers and gang members, discussing what went down and going over their next moves. Police cruisers often pull up, with officers barking for them to scatter.
But Carter isn't one of the usual suspects. His job is to curb violence. Since 2007, he's been a key member of Safe Streets, a program that treats the city's stubborn violence as a public health crisis requiring intervention.
With hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, ex-offenders and former gang members such as Carter are paid to use their street credibility to mediate disputes with a high risk for violence. Such efforts are extremely delicate, requiring that Safe Streets' employees maintain connections to the criminal element and conduct their work in the shadows.
And last week, unsealed federal court records raised troubling questions about the merits of granting such autonomy to offenders working so close to the edge. Drug Enforcement Administration agents alleged that a Safe Streets worker in West Baltimore was actually a heroin-dealing street commander of the powerful Black Guerrilla Family gang. They say he used his gang intervention work to make frequent contacts with drug dealers and gang members appear legitimate.
Though no one from Carter's program was charged, the 163-page affidavit contained a single allegation from an unnamed source that the East Side Safe Streets program is "controlled" by the BGF and helps gang members get jobs after their release from prison.
Those developments were enough to prompt Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who less than a month ago awarded $1 million to Carter's program, to suspend all funding pending a review. Its Monument Street office has been shuttered, and operations are on hold.
It's the latest obstacle the group has had to overcome, following the death of a crucial leader and an explosion of violence last summer. While Safe Streets' funding is in flux, advocates for the program say the stakes are even higher on the streets, where a delay in services and accusations that the group is affiliated with a particular gang could have dire consequences.
Workers said they are receiving cross looks amid rising tensions, and are scrambling to disassociate themselves from the unrelated West Side program and an accusation that they say is unfounded.
"All we rely on is our credibility and our name," said outreach worker Corey Winfield. "I don't have no badge, or the state of Maryland behind me. ... I'm at the OK Corral with no protection."
On Friday, about 50 community members from East and South Baltimore, where another Safe Streets program is administered by a separate organization, rallied at City Hall demanding that the mayor reinstate funding.
"We support the mayor and we understand the need for them to look into what's happening, but at the same time, these are fragile communities, and without Safe Streets, I'm very concerned that there's going to be more shootings, more homicides," said James Piper Bond, whose Living Classrooms Foundation administers the East Side program. "We need to get back to work."
Voice of experience
The Safe Streets concept began in 1999 with a program called CeaseFire, based in Chicago. It was predicated on a theory that violence is a health epidemic that, like diseases, can be dramatically reduced by changing behaviors, or at least managing them. In this case, the change agents would be ex-offenders and gang members, seen as the only ones who could get the ear of troubled youth.
Daniel Webster, a Johns Hopkins University professor who has studied Baltimore's gun violence for years, said the concept comes with the same risk and reward as needle exchange programs.
"These types of things make government officials queasy," Webster said. "But like needle exchanges, this has proven to be successful. It comes down to a political question of, 'Can you withstand the heat that is likely to come when you address gangs and illegal things through means other than law enforcement?' "
When the concept was exported to Baltimore in 2007, the city Health Department initially identified three areas to implement the program - the Poppleton/Hollins Market neighborhoods in West Baltimore (which a year later was defunded); Cherry Hill in South Baltimore; and McElderry Park. Each would be overseen by a different nonprofit, using $1.5 million in start-up grants provided by the U.S. Department of Justice and additional funds from donors. Today it costs about $350,000 a year to run the program at each site.
Outreach workers, sometimes with records that mirror those of the criminals and gang members they are trying to counsel, are the most crucial part of the program, advocates say.
James Peterkin, a 38-year-old resident who joined a recent Safe Streets neighborhood walk, said young people don't trust police and need a program such as Safe Streets to turn to.
"Otherwise, they're not going to talk to nobody. They're going to keep whatever they know to theyself, and the violence is going to continue," he said. "We is in a real crazy city right now. It's like God is holding back the angels for some reason."
The Safe Streets workers try to connect at-risk young people with educational resources and job training. They sponsor dances and cookouts, and have an office with computers and workout equipment. But they realize not everyone respond. For some clients, Carter says, it's not about getting them "out of the game," but "changing the game."