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Editorial

News Opinion Editorial

Expand the Safe Streets program

The rise in fatal shootings that has claimed dozens of lives in Baltimore City since the beginning of the summer focused attention on the gang violence that police say is responsible for much of the killing. Competing gangs adhere to a rigid code: You kill one of ours, we'll kill one of yours. That's why the vicious cycle of shootings and retaliatory killings persists even when police flood troubled neighborhoods with foot patrols and extra officers on overtime.

But Baltimore could learn from the progress police in Los Angeles have made recently toward reducing gang violence. The city's police chief, Charlie Beck, has teamed up with neighborhood activists who include several former gang members to encourage rival gangs to settle their differences peacefully. His approach, based on research data from academic experts, suggests that building trust between police and community residents and enlisting their help in resolving gang disputes can lead to drastic reductions in gun violence.

A recent New York Times Magazine article detailed the strategy that has resulted in a more than 60 percent decline in violent crime over the last two years at one public housing project in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Chief Beck realized that the so-called "stop and frisk" policy followed by his officers — which relied on briefly detaining and searching hundreds of thousands of young men every year in order to discourage those carrying illegal weapons — was counterproductive because it alienated entire communities without making much of a dent in gun crime.

Instead, Mr. Beck reached out to local residents for help in mediating the disputes over turf and other issues that were leading young men to kill each other. The group he put together in Watts included community activists, local clergy and elected officials. But critically, it also included several ex-gang members with intimate knowledge of their former associates' thinking. By instructing his officers to treat even hardened offenders fairly and with respect whenever possible, Mr. Beck's department and its citizen allies were able to encourage many rival gang leaders to end the cycle of retaliatory violence.

In a recent commentary in The Sun, Daniel Webster, who heads the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, suggested Baltimore could achieve similar reductions in gun violence by expanding its existing Safe Streets Program beyond the four city neighborhoods where it now operates. The six-year-old initiative, modeled on a more extensive program in Chicago, employs street-wise community outreach workers and youth counselors, some of whom are also former gang members, to persuade adolescent boys and young men to choose nonviolent alternatives for settling disputes.

The Safe Streets program has been credited with the total cessation of youth homicides over a two-year span in one East Baltimore community where researchers had projected at least four such murders would occur, based on previous data. Today there are at least four young men walking the streets who might have been homicide statistics were it not for the project's intervention. That argues well for attempting similar initiatives in dozens of other city neighborhoods where gangs are a problem.

Since the recent uptick in shootings, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has tried flooding high-crime neighborhoods with foot patrols and plugging gaps in the force with officers drawn from other units working on overtime, all in an effort to put a lid on the killings. Meanwhile, he has continued his predecessor's focus on getting illegal guns off the streets by arresting the most violent offenders. But by themselves, those efforts haven't been enough to make residents feel safer. More needs to be done, and a good start would be expanding the Safe Streets initiative.

Granted, there have been concerns at times about whether the program's workers might still be involved in illegal activity, but as a city task force report found three years ago, such problems can be mitigated or eliminated through effective oversight. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she supports the program and its expansion but that the difficulty is in finding the right people to staff it. Money is less the issue, she says, than finding people with a history of life on the streets and a track record of leaving it behind. For better or worse, there should be no lack of people who fit that description in Baltimore. The city needs to make it a top priority to find them, but the onus falls, too, on people who have turned their lives around to raise their hands and join the effort.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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