Baltimore legislator seeks to prevent senseless shootings, like the one that killed his grandson

In the months after 22-year-old Tyrone Ray was gunned down in Northeast Baltimore on Labor Day, his family — including his grandfather, Del. Talmadge Branch — struggled to cope with the killing.

Branch says he never expected the bloodshed common in some Baltimore neighborhoods to touch his family. Ray had been coaching football to help young people stay out of trouble, working as a longshoreman and taking classes when he was shot at a convenience store in Belair-Edison.

Six months later, Branch still can’t bring himself to go into a 7-Eleven.

Ray’s mother, Chanel Branch, wondered: If her son couldn’t escape the violence, how can other innocent young people?

And then she thought about how her grandmother can sit on her steps in McElderry Park for the first time in years — thanks to Safe Streets, a crime prevention program.

At a House of Delegates hearing on Tuesday, the delegate and his daughter pleaded with lawmakers to fund an expansion of Safe Streets throughout the city to prevent more needless deaths like Ray’s.

“Last year there were 342 murders; my grandson was 239,” Branch told his colleagues. “I wanted to do something in honor of my grandson, to try to help to save a life and to try to curb this record number of murders in our city.”

Branch’s legislation would allocate $3.6 million to potentially expand Safe Streets to 10 or 12 more neighborhoods around Baltimore. The bill says the state investment could only be used to expand the program, not to replace city funds or private donations that support the program, which uses mediation to resolve disputes.

Safe Streets was imported to Baltimore from Chicago in 2007. Its expansion is part of a package of anti-crime legislation Mayor Catherine E. Pugh has asked Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly to support as her administration seeks to reverse a surge in homicides that began after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. The program has a $1.7 million budget, and Pugh has said she hopes to raise $10 million in private donations to expand it.

While spates of shootings have broken out in many parts of Baltimore, often in chain reactions of revenge and retribution, Safe Streets staff say their intervention has saved lives in McElderry Park, Cherry Hill, Mondawmin, Park Heights and, most recently, in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Gray grew up and was arrested. The program seeks to prevent violence before it erupts, with staff working closely with individuals at risk of criminal activity to mediate conflicts.

Organizers say their intervention has helped prevent any homicides in McElderry Park for nearly 500 days, and they said there hasn’t been a shooting in the neighborhood in nearly seven months. Its success there comes despite a temporary closure in 2015 when police said they found drugs and guns stashed in the program’s office.

Corey Winfield, violence prevention coordinator for the Sandtown operation, told delegates about a situation in which violence was imminent because one young man suspected another of stealing his cell phone.

Winfield retrieved the phone by giving the alleged thief $20, and when he gave it back to its owner, he asked, “You’re going to kill someone for a cell phone?” The man said that he might, on principle. Winfield asked if that’s what he would tell his daughter from prison when, one day, she would ask why he wasn’t there to see her dressed up for her prom. That calmed the man down, Winfield said.

“It’s never about a cell phone,” Winfield said. “It’s about neighborhoods, ‘I’m bigger than you, I’m badder than you.’ ”

The lawmakers expressed their condolences to Branch and his daughter, and their support for the legislation.

Del. Tawanna P. Gaines, a Prince George’s County Democrat, nodded and mouthed “Wow” as Winfield spoke.

Del. David Vogt, a Republican who represents parts of Carroll and Frederick counties, asked why the bill wasn’t filed as emergency legislation, so it could take effect immediately upon passage.

“I know for a fact that what you do works,” said Del. Keith Haynes, a West Baltimore Democrat.

Hogan’s administration is opposing the bill on fiscal grounds, because the legislation would mandate spending year after year. In written testimony, budget officials said the General Assembly’s “ever-increasing use of mandates and entitlement spending” has made it difficult for the state to manage chronic structural budget deficits. They added that they are not opposed to “the violence prevention policy being advanced.”

A spokesman for the budget department said the state has spent $70 million over the past three years on crime reduction and victim services programs in Baltimore through the Governor’s Office of Crime, Control and Prevention. One of the office’s grant programs has funded Safe Streets with $1.2 million to date, officials said.

Del. Brooke Lierman, another Baltimore Democrat, said the program is worth more investment because it has proven to work.

“It has successfully dramatically reduced or eliminated gun violence in the neighborhoods in which they work — including at two neighborhoods in my district — and it is a cost-effective program,” Lierman said. “I’m continuing to actively advocate that we support this evidence-based approach to reducing violence in Baltimore.”

Chanel Branch said she hopes the lawmakers help Safe Streets grow, because her son’s death shows that no one is safe as long as the violence continues. As she continues to process her loss, and her fear for her other children and grandchildren, she said it wasn’t easy to come to Annapolis. As she concluded her testimony, she started to weep. As others spoke, her father rubbed her back.

“It was really hard and painful to talk, but at the same time, motivating,” she said after the hearing.

Her son’s death was especially difficult, she says, because he wasn’t “a part of the streets.” But she stressed that she wouldn’t wish her anguish on anyone.

“I don’t want any other parents or mothers to feel what I feel,” she said. “Everybody is somebody’s baby.”

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