Safe Streets violence mediation program coming to West Baltimore

Franklin Lance knows his West Baltimore neighborhood can be great — located near to Druid Hill Park, it's home to the city's biggest shopping mall, a public university, and a network of active churches and community groups.

But like so many areas of Baltimore, public safety looms large as an obstacle to growth. So he and his neighbors cheered Monday the announcement that the Greater Mondawmin area has been chosen by the city health department for an expansion of the violence mediation program Safe Streets.


"We refuse to acquiesce and believe that violence is the status quo," said Lance, a pastor and president of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council. "We believe we can be an archetype for urban renewal."

The council, a network of nine community associations, beat out groups across the city for $375,000 in federal funding to launch the city's third Safe Streets site. Programs have been in operation in East Baltimore's McElderry Park neighborhood and Cherry Hill in South Baltimore since 2007, with studies showing they have helped drive down violence by as much as 60 percent in some areas.


The program is modeled after the CeaseFire initiative in Chicago, in which ex-gang members or drug dealers are hired to walk the streets and mediate conflicts without involving law enforcement. Workers connect with troubled youths and hold community rallies and other events such as cookouts.

While other areas of the city had a far higher incidence of violence, Greater Mondawmin's five-year rate of non-fatal shootings of 77 per 10,000 people between 2005 and 2009 was well above the citywide average of 46 per 10,000. Officials said communities needed to demonstrate not just a need, but the infrastructure and leadership to carry out the Safe Streets model.

"Through initiatives like Safe Streets, communities where it was once normal to solve problems with guns are now embracing the attitude that shootings are not acceptable," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday at a news conference at Frederick Douglass High School that also kicked off national Youth Violence Prevention Week events.

"It's looking for two things: Who's the person most likely to do the next killing, and who's the person most likely to be killed, and trying to stop that from happening," Lance said. "It does that by having people on the streets with credibility, people that are known, saying 'You don't have to work out your problems by way of violence.' That's what makes it successful."

Funding for the new West Baltimore site is for one year only, however, and grants for the other two sites are due to expire in the summer. Brian Schleter, a spokesman for the health department, said officials are looking for alternative sources of funding.

"We've got a great track record," said Cathy McClain, director of the Cherry Hill Safe Streets. "If more people bought into this program, that we have proved works, we'd be able to do our work without the gauntlet hanging over our head about future funding."

The Greater Mondawmin site is Safe Streets' second foray into West Baltimore — the first was brief and nearly shut down the entire program.

A Safe Streets site in Union Square that was run by the nonprofit Communities Organized to Improve Life, or COIL, lost its funding in 2008 after just one year, but continued to operate independently and was infiltrated by the Black Guerrilla Family gang as part of the gang's plan to gain influence in legitimate enterprises, according to law enforcement authorities.


An outreach worker employed by COIL was indicted in 2009 along with more than 20 others, prompting Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as a precaution to freeze funding to the McElderry Park and Cherry Hill programs, which were not accused of wrongdoing. A task force later recommended funding be restored, but found flaws in the oversight of the programs and suggested that control be shifted away from the city.

Still, Safe Streets remains popular. When health officials put out a request for proposals for a new site last fall, Councilman Nick Mosby helped Greater Mondawmin put together a plan.

"I know this program can be the catalyst for rejuvenation and change," Mosby said.

Lance said he and other neighborhood leaders visited the McElderry Park site to learn what they would need to do to be successful. The biggest take away: Don't be afraid.

"You must be willing to walk the streets, and can't be afraid to confront people and discuss situations and problems," Lance said. "We left thinking, 'Yes, we can do this. We really can work this out.'"