Mayor says Safe Streets anti-violence program to be expanded, relocated under criminal justice office

A program that uses street-wise mediators to interrupt and prevent violence in dangerous Baltimore neighborhoods without involving police will be expanded from four to 10 neighborhoods and shifted from the health department to the mayor’s criminal justice office, Mayor Catherine Pugh said Wednesday.

The expansion of the Safe Streets program depends on the city’s ability to attract $10 million in private philanthropic funding for it and other anti-violence efforts, Pugh said, so it isn’t assured. But Drew Vetter, director of the criminal justice office, said he has a “high degree of optimism” the money will be raised.

“This is extraordinarily positive news that we are collectively investing in an evidence-based violence reduction program like this,” Vetter said. “There have been many organizations and individuals who have spoken to their vision about what we need to do to reduce violence in Baltimore City, and expanding the Safe Streets program seems to be present in everyone's ideas.”

Pugh announced the changes at a news conference where she touched on a number of other criminal justice issues as homicides and other violent crimes continue to mount. She said she has full confidence in Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, and has planned a candlelight vigil at the War Memorial at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 28 with members of the clergy.

The Safe Streets change was the most significant policy announcement. Under the program, outreach workers and violence interrupters mediate neighborhood disputes, connecting with at-risk youths and young adults, defusing beefs before they escalate into violence, and referring youths to city services.

The program currently operates in Cherry Hill, McElderry Park, Park Heights and Sandtown-Winchester. Pugh did not name the six additional neighborhoods where the program will be added if the funding is found.

The decision to shift the program from the health department to the criminal justice office was made because the health department does not “have the capacity that we have at the city level” to “go out and get more additional dollars,” Pugh said.

Vetter said his office will be able through connections with job hubs, hospitals and legal services providers to provide additional resources to those individuals identified by Safe Streets workers as being in need of support.

The Police Department — where Vetter previously worked as chief of staff to Commissioner Kevin Davis — will stay separated from the program, he said.

He said city officials are fully committed “to the Safe Streets model, to the cure violence model, which is that this is a public health approach to violence reduction,” Vetter said.

The commitment to the program is something of a turnaround for the Pugh administration, which didn’t include funding for Safe Streets in its initial budget proposal in March. That prompted the City Council to hold emergency hearings, and the funding — $1.7 million this year — was restored in a budget deal brokered between the mayor’s office and the council.

Vetter said each additional Safe Streets site would cost $500,000, so adding six sites would cost $3 million. A variety of neighborhoods with high levels of violence would be eligible, though none has been selected. The city would also have to choose a community based organization to partner with in each new site, he said.

Dr. Leana Wen, the city health commissioner, stood with Pugh during the announcement Wednesday, and said the health department looks forward to helping the city continue the program’s success in new neighborhoods.

“We’re so thrilled about the expansion,” she said.

She called violence a “public health issue” that “spreads like a contagious disease.”

City Councilman Brandon Scott said he is “wary” of moving the program from the health department to Vetter’s office, in part because “for a lot of folks on the streets, when they see [the criminal justice office], they see [Baltimore Police].”

Scott also said that he supports expanding the program, and said that shouldn’t depend on raising money from outside sources.

“We should have this money inside the city’s budget if it’s such a priority,” he said.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and a frequent consultant for the city on public health and criminal justice policies, tweeted his support for the move, which he called a “positive step to create stable funding, expand the program, and provide complementary city services to high-risk folks” who are engaged by the Safe Streets program.

Lawrence Brown, a Morgan State University professor and well-known activist in the city, had a different take, calling the move a “travesty” and questioning the motive.

“Now it will go under a more police-oriented public official (Drew Vetter),” Brown wrote on Twitter. “Why is this move being made?”

Pugh said a similar program in New York also is housed under the mayor’s office there.

In addition to his experience in the Police Department, Vetter “has a policy background, a criminal justice background, and a management background” that will serve him well in overseeing the program, she said.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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