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News Opinion Editorial

Notorious, but not for prevention [Editorial]

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was right last week to defend Baltimore's Safe Streets program as an effective tactic for reducing gun violence, despite the fact that one of the initiative's workers was arrested recently on federal drug and firearms charges. The fact that one bad apple turned up among the dozens of people employed in the effort doesn't invalidate the need for such programs or the valuable service they perform in troubled city neighborhoods.

Safe Streets is a juvenile-violence reduction initiative in four city neighborhoods that employs street-wise community outreach workers to persuade adolescent boys and young men to choose nonviolent alternatives for settling disputes. The outreach workers are often older men who have renounced a life of crime and now spend their time mentoring men of a younger generation to avoid making the same mistakes they did. That several of the workers have extensive criminal records only lends them additional credibility on the streets.

So perhaps no one should have been completely surprised when Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale, a 52-year-old former Baltimore drug dealer and Safe Streets worker who supposedly had mended his ways, turned up as a suspect in the recent federal investigation of corruption at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Police claim that in addition to his community outreach work, Mr. Barksdale is also a high-ranking member of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang, the group alleged to have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from illicit sales of contraband drugs, cigarettes and cell phones at the jail.

Mr. Barksdale is something of a Baltimore legend. In the 1980s, he was notorious for terrorizing residents of public housing projects in West Baltimore as a high-profile heroin dealer. And according to law enforcement officials he has been shot more than 20 times during his long and violent criminal career. But he is perhaps best known for claiming to have been the model for the character of Avon Barksdale, the charismatic and ruthless drug kingpin portrayed on the HBO television series "The Wire." True or not, such boasts added a luster of celebrity to the reputation he enjoyed on the street.

Mr. Barksdale is not accused of involving the Safe Streets program in any criminal activity. Nevertheless, his arrest renewed questions about whether the program was adequately supervised and whether the city should even be employing former criminals to work with its at-risk youth. Moreover, some city police have long viewed Safe Streets with suspicion, fearing that many of the former felons who claimed to have gone straight were simply using the program to cover their continuing criminal activities. No doubt Mr. Barksdale's recent arrest will revive such concerns.

Yet there's no question that Safe Streets has saved lives. A Johns Hopkins University study found that the program, which was modeled after a more extensive initiative in Chicago, led to a total cessation of youth homicides over one two-year period in an East Baltimore community where researchers had projected at least four such murders would occur. Far from shutting the program down, Baltimore should be doing everything it can to expand the effort beyond the four neighborhoods where it currently is operating. The mayor has said she wants to do just that.

Public safety strategies that target the relatively small number of violent offenders who commit most of the serious crime have been shown to work. The Safe Streets program is basically a networking tactic that aims to reach the people whose behavior puts them at risk before a crime occurs rather than focusing on catching the perpetrators after the fact, when it is often too late. Stopping the killing does not require broad, sweeping policies such as New York's "stop and frisk," temporarily blanketing high-crime areas with police or mass arrests of neighborhood residents, none of which have been shown to be particularly effective in Baltimore.

If programs like Safe Streets are to work, however, the city must also commit to thoroughly vet the workers it employs to carry its message to the streets. Mr. Barksdale's story would just be another tale of prison recidivism had he not worked under false colors for a program designed to forestall the very kind of illegal activities he himself allegedly was engaged in. That's surely an embarrassment to his employers and a great disappointment to the young people whose trust he betrayed. But it's no reason to halt the program or step back from the commitment to use every tool at the city's disposal to end the horrific toll gun violence takes in Baltimore.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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