McElderry's fatal shootings have fallen since 'Safe Streets' mediation

The Baltimore Sun

Over the past 17 months, not a single person has been killed in East Baltimore's McElderry Park neighborhood, a 44-square-block patch of decaying inner-city real estate in one of the most violent parts of town.

This is the good news from an interim report released yesterday as part of a Baltimore Health Department study of its Operation Safe Streets program. Launched in August 2007, the initiative uses ex-offenders and counselors to mediate disputes between armed gangs and to mentor youngsters attracted to the street-corner drug trade.

The bad news is that nonfatal shootings did not drop as much in McElderry Park as in 31 other high-crime areas.

So the question is: Did Operation Safe Streets accomplish anything?

Daniel W. Webster, author of the study and director of research for the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, believes the program is valuable and should continue.

It all hinges on how you define murder and intent.

Webster's report notes that one can safely assume there is "little difference between a homicide and a nonfatal shooting aside from the assailants' marksmanship and promptness of medical care."

If you agree, it's hard to credit Safe Streets with the lack of murders in McElderry Park. But Webster doesn't agree that the only difference between a shooting that results in a trip to the hospital and one that ends in the morgue is merely a different outcome of a similar violent act.

"A spur of the moment shooting, when someone gets ticked off and happens to have a gun and fires off a few rounds is very different than when someone says, 'I know where someone is at this time, and I'm going to come after him with full firepower and make sure the job is finished,' " Webster told me. "It's very different in terms of probability of whether someone is going to die."

And it is the premeditated, and often retaliatory, killings that Webster says Operation Safe Streets has prevented. Two people have been shot and killed this year a block outside McElderry Park.

"Four years prior to this program, there was at least one shooting or homicide per month in this area," Webster said. "Then you go 17 straight months without a single homicide. That's really kind of amazing. It's hard for me to fathom that it is by chance or good luck."

The study notes a change in attitude in McElderry Park that cannot be overlooked.

Webster wrote that "data revealed far less support for using gun violence to settle disputes" than in other neighborhoods, which he called "a major success and sign that the program is working." The report says counselors mediated 53 "high-stakes disputes and altercations."

But Webster also concedes that Operation Safe Streets began about the same time that Baltimore police sent in a violent crime task force to help police dangerous areas, and East Baltimore in 2008 recorded some of its lowest murder and shooting stats in years.

It is not easy to determine whether the boost in policing or counseling led to the declines. My guess is it is a little of both.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, said he would like to expand Operation Safe Streets - it is now in McElderry Park and three other communities - but he acknowledged that with pending budget cuts, "the city and state are going to make that difficult."

It costs $350,000 a year to run the program in one police post. Sharfstein said they used a $1.5 million federal grant for startup and have $1 million from the city's mayor and about $700,000 in private donations. Combined with expected grants, "that only takes us to 2010," Sharfstein said.

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