The city of Baltimore is working to expand and centralize its core anti-violence programs — steps that officials say will curb future bloodshed as the city remains on pace to record more than 300 homicides for the eighth year in a row.
On Friday, the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement announced changes in two areas: providing expanded services to gunshot victims during their hospital stays and consolidating operation of the city’s Safe Streets program, which employs and trains so-called “violence interrupters,” often people with knowledge of the streets and criminal histories, to mediate disputes before they become violent.
The changes came following an internal review released earlier this year that found Safe Streets lacked oversight, and half of the workers described their training as inadequate.
Experts have also raised significant questions about whether Baltimore should rethink its approach to curbing gun violence after three Safe Streets workers were killed within about 18 months, with the most recent death in January. That prompted questions about whether the program model is becoming outdated and needs to evolve.
In response to those questions, Mayor Brandon Scott pledged in April an additional $10 million to other anti-violence programs. He acknowledged room for improvement while emphasizing the importance of scaling up these community-based anti-violence programs, which historically have been fragmented and short-lived.
“Approaching violence reduction through a lens of public health means implementing a strategy that simultaneously unearths the root causes of violence and utilizes violence intervention programming like Safe Streets, hospital-based responder programs, and community-based organizations,” Scott said in a statement.
The Safe Streets and hospital-based programs are part of the mayor’s ongoing efforts to reduce violence outside of police intervention. While some, including councilmembers, have questioned the efficiency of such programs that have yet to bring a substantial reduction in crime, Scott has said an interconnected ecosystem with proper investment will prove effective.
The city has been negotiating with eight hospitals that see the most trauma patients to provide “hospital-based violence intervention programs” and training to hospital staff through the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention.
MONSE Director Shantay Jackson said that the office in February met with the medical systems in the city to discuss assistance to gun violence victims. She said the institutions collectively treated “over 1,100 gunshot victims” over a year period. Together, they worked to develop a contract for violence intervention programs.
Some hospitals, such as Maryland Shock Trauma and Sinai Hospital, have long had programs to help violence victims who are treated at those facilities. Earlier this month, for example, the University of Maryland, Baltimore announced a new Center for Violence Prevention that will look for solutions to that violence. Earlier this year, a new LifeBridge center opened to provide follow-up services to survivors of violence.
But city officials said the new partnerships between MONSE and eight hospitals across the city will create a standard of care for victim services, facilitate information-sharing, and improve care services to ensure there aren’t disparate outcomes for victims.
“We are building systems that are integrated,” Jackson said.
By working with all hospitals to create a single response, it will create one operations manual for hospitals, and to clarify roles and responsibilities of staff.
After a U.S. Justice Department report that examined how poorly shooting victims in the city are treated, Jackson said they are working to address those issues with Baltimore Police, to make sure victims are treated “fairly and humanely.”
“This is not just about the victims assessment, but how we integrate all of these strategies,” she said.
In addition to the work with hospitals, MONSE officials announced that the 10 Safe Streets sites will now be run by just two nonprofits, LifeBridge Health and Catholic Charities, which offer services that align with the Safe Streets work, including community outreach, mediation and violence intervention.
Jackson said the change will make Safe Streets more efficient and help expand the program.
“There has historically been a lack of standardized policy coming out of the City government office responsible for the program,” officials wrote in their recent internal review of Safe Streets. “No standard operations manual exists. A lack of guidance has created operational challenges.”
High staffing turnover, persistent vacancies at some sites and relatively low salaries have also presented challenges over the years, the report said.
Consolidating the program will help address those issues and allow Safe Streets to operate beyond the 2.6 miles covered by the existing 10 sites, Jackson said.
As a result of the change, Youth Advocate Programs Inc. will no longer operate the Penn North Safe Streets site. But the nonprofit will continue to work with the city through its Group Violence Reduction Strategy. The program has been piloted in the Western District and focuses on individuals who are most at-risk to commit crime, and through intensive intervention, works to get them necessary services to prevent them from committing violence.
“We’re happy to be partners in the ecosystem that is being developed,” said Fred Fogg, the national director of Youth Advocate Programs.
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“The challenge is making sure all these systems are working well together in a coordinated effort. We have seen a lot of success in that space.”
Since the Group Violence Reduction Strategy began targeting individuals for service, Fogg said they have received 50 referrals, have 27 active participants, and nine individuals who denied services. Another 14 were removed from the referral list by police, which city officials have said is because those individuals might be subjects of ongoing criminal investigations and ineligible for services.
Of those who have been participants, Fogg said they have had no one reoffend.
“We’ve had some good outcomes,” he said. “That engagement process is key. You have to build a rapport ... it’s also leaning into these individuals and letting them drive what the plan looks like. We want them to identify goals that they see as essential.”
Many have similar backgrounds, and live in communities with low income, lack of economic opportunity and high levels of violence, he said.
“Those who engage in violence have a need that is unmet,” he said. “It’s important to build this ecosystem of safety.”
It can be a challenge to build and coordinate the various efforts, and make them coordinate. But he added: “I’m really optimistic for what this can look like.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Mayor Brandon Scott pledged an additional $10 million in funding for the Safe Streets program. Safe Streets is not among the anti-violence programs to benefit. The Sun regrets the error.