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City reopens Safe Streets East Baltimore office

City officials are reopening East Baltimore's Safe Streets program, which closed in July when guns and drugs were found stashed in the office.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen, who administers the anti-violence program, said city officials have done a comprehensive review of the McElderry Park site. That has led to "new training and security protocols to strengthen management and oversight," she said.

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Wen also announced that the city is formally recruiting organizations to run a fifth Safe Streets site in West Baltimore. The program uses ex-felons — believed to have credibility in the neighborhoods served — to mediate conflicts and intervene in situations likely to result in gun violence.

"We know that violence spreads like an infection, but just like infectious diseases, it can be prevented," Wen said. "Safe Streets is a critical component in stopping this contagion. By expanding this evidence-based initiative, we help reduce homicides, decrease gun violence and save lives."

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Safe Streets also operates in the city's Cherry Hill, Mondawmin and Park Heights neighborhoods. The program was launched in Baltimore about eight years ago, modeled after the national Cure Violence initiative.

Wen said operations were beginning in a limited capacity Friday at the McElderry Park site, which will roll out full services in coming weeks.

In July, the city suspended operations in McElderry Park after two Safe Streets workers were arrested. Police officers found seven guns, as well as heroin, cocaine and drug paraphernalia. A robbery investigation led officers to the location, police have said.

Nine people were arrested at the site. The two Safe Streets workers were fired, officials said.

Police linked one of the guns found in the investigation, a semiautomatic, to at least two shootings, authorities have revealed in court documents.

The suspension was one of several in recent years. Operations at Safe Streets locations were frozen in 2010 and 2013 over criminal allegations facing some involved with the program.

During recent weeks, the Health Department worked with officials from Cure Violence to analyze the McElderry Park site and develop new safety measures and staff background check requirements, city officials said.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young wants to ensure that the ex-felons working in McElderry Park — and in all the city's Safe Streets sites — have the support necessary to avoid the potential of re-offending, Young's spokesman, Lester Davis, said. That is especially important as the city looks to open the fifth site, Davis said.

"Instituting these controls and having parameters in place to keep this from happening again is encouraging," Davis said. He said Young's concern has been "how do you learn from what happened and put provisions in place to make sure it doesn't happen again."

The fifth office is likely to open in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Freddie Gray was arrested. The 25-year-old's death, after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody, ignited unrest in April.

The Health Department issued a request for proposals from community organizations Friday.

Wen pointed to the program's record last year. Safe Streets workers mediated 880 conflicts and had 15,000 client interactions during 2014. More than 80 percent of those interactions were believed to have been "likely" or "very likely" to result in gun violence without intervention, she said.

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Officials credited Safe Street's East Baltimore location with helping to remedy 136 incidents.

"Safe Streets works because our outreach workers have truly walked in the shoes of the people we serve and have the needed credibility in their neighborhoods," Wen said. "These Safe Streets workers have had significant success in reducing violence in communities across Baltimore, and we are thrilled to expand the program to a community that remains in need of support."

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