In Baltimore's bloody May, Safe Streets keeps peace

Investigators stand by at the command center a block away on Madison Street while Baltimore Police move forward at the 800 block Linwood during a scene of violence that culminated at an apparent barricade at the 800 block of Linwood Ave..
Investigators stand by at the command center a block away on Madison Street while Baltimore Police move forward at the 800 block Linwood during a scene of violence that culminated at an apparent barricade at the 800 block of Linwood Ave.. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

I'm looking at some numbers and speaking with James Timpson, who runs the Safe Streets violence prevention program in Park Heights, and I'm wondering: Why aren't these guys in every high-crime corner of the city? If the mayor and police commissioner want to make some "adjustments" to curtail the shootings and killings in Baltimore, why not expand Safe Streets — and now?

"We haven't had a shooting in my post since March 20," says Timpson, referring to the area his "violence interruption" team covers in Northwest Baltimore — from Park Circle to West Cold Spring Lane. The Safe Streets website says Timpson's area had no shootings in January or February, one in March, none in April.


And Timpson says his post has been peaceful in May, a month that has seen 127 shootings across the city — 91 nonfatal, 36 fatal.

There are three other Safe Streets teams operating under the auspices of the Baltimore City Health Department — one in Cherry Hill, one in McElderry Park on the east side, one in the Mondawmin area. The Safe Streets team members work the streets, talk to people, and develop strong relationships with neighbors and ex-offenders who've returned home from prison. They keep their eyes and ears open for trouble and try to interrupt brewing conflicts with the potential for gunfire. They appear to have been successful.


This year, there were only nine shootings in the four Safe Streets posts through May 9, according to the health department.

But some fresher numbers have just come in. "Over this weekend alone, Memorial Day weekend, we had how many shot in the city?" Timpson asks.


"We just got the stats from our epidemiologist," says Timpson, referring to a health department employee who tracks Safe Streets. "And we had no shootings in any of our posts."


"None," he says. "Not one in a Safe Streets post.

"We have success because of the work we've already done, because of the relations we develop and hold," says Timpson.

Safe Streets came to Baltimore in 2007, but the program was twice halted by city officials amid questions about criminal activity by some of its workers. The program was reinstated, and it has been expanded.

The city now spends about $770,000 to fund three of the Safe Streets posts; the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence funds the fourth.

Each Safe Streets team consists of outreach workers, who sometimes have criminal records similar to those of the ex-offenders and gang members they counsel, and an "interrupter," who is assigned the task of keeping young men from killing each other.

Sometimes, Timpson says, the intended victims aren't so young. "A generation gap can lead to trouble," he says. "Some of the older guys who are just released and home from prison don't understand what the younger guys are capable of."

Just recently, Timpson's team tried to keep a young man from exacting revenge on an older man who got the best of him in a street fight. "We don't get them to kiss and make up, but hopefully we get them to just leave it alone," he says. "That's about the best you can hope for, that the [young] guy will say, 'I'll leave it alone because you asked me to, but tell him to stay away from me, I don't want to see him out here again.'"


That's not the most common scenario leading to conflict, according to Timpson.

"Normally, disputes are related to some kind of economic issue," he says. "Somebody owes someone some money, maybe for drugs, or someone stole some money."

But shootings? You're going to shoot someone who owes you $200? Is that what has been happening in Baltimore during the bloodiest month in 15 years?

That last question calls for speculation, but Timpson indulges me.

"Old scores and beefs are being settled over money, over past issues," he says. "The common thought is — and I'm hearing this — is that the police are being lax, that they are not as visible. So if I see you in the middle of the day and you owe me $200, I might let that go. But now, in the middle of the day, if nine times out of 10, the police aren't around, maybe I decide to settle things right now, maybe I have fewer reservations."

And one shooting can lead to another, as friends or relatives retaliate, sometimes within the same neighborhood or even block.

That's the kind of thing that Safe Streets is meant to interrupt — the flow from a beef over money to gunfire to needless death. Timpson says his Park Heights team averages between 15 and 20 mediations a month. Why isn't this operation being replicated all over the city?

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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