Safe Streets' successes and side effects

Safe Streets arrests may be the price we have to pay for a program that works to reduce violence.

In 2010, Baltimore shut down two of its Safe Streets violence intervention programs after federal authorities tied them to gang activity. The city was unable to substantiate the reports and started them back up. One of the Safe Streets locations in West Baltimore was shut down three years later after two of its workers were arrested. And now, an East Baltimore Safe Streets office has been suspended after police found a stash of guns and drugs there and arrested two more workers.

It would be easy to be outraged by these failings and to condemn the program, except for one thing: When it comes to stopping shootings and killings, Safe Streets works. It works in Chicago, it works in Los Angeles, and it works here. We certainly don't think the city should ignore illegal activity at Safe Streets offices — quite the contrary, they require vigorous oversight from Baltimore's health department, which coordinates the program, and the non-profit groups that run the sites. But we do think that if we compare the possibility that Safe Streets will periodically have failings like these with the probability that it will reduce the violence that has scarred the city in so many ways, the balance rests on the side of continuing the program.

Safe Streets treats violence as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement one, and that explains both its effectiveness and its susceptibility to having workers who engage in criminal activity. Safe Streets workers are generally ex-gang members and drug dealers, which both gives them the knowledge of the streets necessary to sense when violence is brewing and the credibility to intervene to stop it. There is an inherent tension between the desire to find workers who are as effective as possible in that sense and the need to make sure that they really have left a life of crime in the past. Compounding the risk, the program has an arms-length relationship with the police by design. The outreach workers' job is not to stop all criminal activity, just to prevent violence. It's a harm reduction strategy, and that is sometimes an uncomfortable thing for the government to support.

But there's also this: Cherry Hill, one of the city's four Safe Streets sites, recently went more than a year without a homicide. The East Baltimore neighborhood whose Safe Streets office is now suspended hasn't had a homicide since September. And the evidence of the program's effects is more than anecdotal. Daniel Webster, the noted Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health gun violence researcher, published an evaluation of the program in 2012 suggesting that Safe Streets had prevented more than 5 homicides and nearly 35 non-fatal shootings in the four neighborhoods where it operated during the equivalent of a little over two years.

The question is whether we can get the benefit of the violence reduction without the occasional specter of public funds supporting people who are allegedly involved in criminal activity.

Oversight of Safe Streets is somewhat complicated. The health department sets standards, coordinates hiring (with input from the community, police department and others) and manages data collection and analysis. Various non-profit groups handle the day-to-day management of the sites. The Living Classrooms Foundation runs the East Baltimore site, and the program manager is a Living Classrooms employee (though his salary is funded by the health department).

We don't have all the facts yet about what happened at the East Baltimore site this week or precisely how the two arrested Safe Streets employees were connected with the drugs, guns and other contraband police say they found in the Safe Streets office. But all evidence from this incident and others points to the need for extremely strong management oversight. (That's also important to ensure that the program is effective, not just scandal free, Mr. Webster's research shows.) And that vigilance must be ongoing, no matter how long an employee has worked for the organization — one of those arrested this week had been with Safe Streets for two years. Beyond that, the city and the non-profits involved need to consider whether better pay (the "violence interrupters" make $25,000-$30,000 a year), training and opportunities for advancement might help prevent Safe Streets workers from succumbing to the temptations their work exposes them to.

But the bottom line is this: If Baltimore was presented with an initiative to reduce homicides by 50 percent or more in a given neighborhood with the down side that one of the workers involved would be arrested every few years, that's a bargain we'd take. To choose otherwise would be like rejecting effective chemotherapy treatments for cancer because they also may cause nausea.

Safe Streets needs careful management and oversight, and it needs to be paired with good policing in a holistic strategy to reduce violence. But an incident like this one, while unfortunate, is no reason to throw out an effective method for reducing violence. Safe Streets should be expanded, not shut down.

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