As homicides and non-fatal shootings mount in neighborhoods across Baltimore, Cherry Hill Safe Streets leaders this week marked an upbeat milestone: One full year without a murder in the area they serve in the South Baltimore community.
“Today is a very big day for us. I love what we are celebrating,” said Keith Brown, who works for the antiviolence group Safe Streets, at a ceremony this week on the program’s South Baltimore site.
Brown, who responds to hospitals after shootings and helps the victims get in touch with services and provides support to get on a better path, is among about 100 Safe Streets employees across the city known as “violence interrupters.” Many of them work in the same neighborhoods where they once committed crimes themselves. Now, they’re called to intervene peacefully when two people are beefing — in conflict — whether over a drug corner or other disputes.
Residents and city leaders are giving much credit to the neighborhood’s Safe Street program, and to similar programs operating around the city. They also acknowledge that difficulties remain — a 43-year-old man was shot last week in the neighborhood but survived.
In fact, the borders of Safe Streets sites don’t align entirely with the neighborhoods they serve. A Baltimore Sun database of homicides shows that one man was found slain Jan. 20, 2021, within the Cherry Hill neighborhood boundaries but just outside what Safe Streets considers its turf. Police said the victim was assaulted and set on fire on Dec. 27, 2020.
Safe Streets opened its first site more than a decade ago and has since become the city’s flagship antiviolence program at a time when residents are calling for alternatives to law enforcement. The program puts its staff on the streets in dangerous situations as they work to stop disputes between sometimes violent and often armed individuals.
It is likely to play an increasing role in the city’s response to violence, leaders said.
“The mayor has been very clear about his interest and directive about expanding violence intervention in Baltimore City,” said Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which includes the Safe Streets program.
“We want to think about what the ecosystem of care needs to look like to tamp down the violence in our community,” Jackson said.
That likely will include expanding Safe Streets following an evaluation of the program to be completed later this year, she said.
The Safe Streets workers’ task isn’t easy, and often they meet individuals who are known to carry guns. Facing difficult conditions, the Safe Streets staff still help the combatants get their GEDs, attend counseling or link them to other social services.
Earlier this year, beloved and longtime Safe Streets employee Dante Barksdale was shot to death in January outside of the Douglass Homes housing project in East Baltimore. Baltimore Police have not provided a motive for the attack, but said it was not a random encounter. Witnesses saw Barksdale talking to his assailant at some point before the shooting.
In other cases, Safe Streets workers have slipped back to their old ways and been criminally charged while working for the program. In 2015, city officials abruptly suspended the work after guns and drugs were found inside at an East Baltimore site.
But, Jackson and other proponents point to the program’s successes.
Across the city so far this year, 935 conflicts that had the potential to become violent have been resolved peacefully through the Safe Streets sites, Jackson said.
Cherry Hill’s recent streak is not the longest without a shooting. One of the city’s oldest Safe Streets sites, the McElderry Park East Baltimore location, once went 500 days without a homicides. Safe Streets also has locations in Park Heights, Franklin Square, Sandtown-Winchester, Belair-Edison, Penn North, Woodbourne McCabe, and Brooklyn. A 10th location in Belvedere neighborhood in North Baltimore is hiring staff and is set to open this year, Jackson said.
Still, the tide of violence has been rising in the city. So far this year Baltimore has recorded 162 homicides, four more than at the same time last year, and 332 non-fatal shootings, nearly 50 more.
Cherry Hill residents said that makes this week’s celebration more remarkable.
“We all know that there are areas throughout our city plagued with daily shootings and senseless murders, so this is a moment we can show our city what happens when a community works together to keep our families and loved ones safe,” said Winnie McCray, the interim CEO of Family Health Centers of Baltimore, in a statement.
Family Health Centers is one of several partner organizations operating Safe Streets sites. Others include Catholic Charities of Baltimore and the Living Classrooms Foundation.
McCray said in an interview Thursday that she attributes the Cherry Hill site’s success to the diligence of Safe Streets workers.
“They have their finger on the pulse and are able to mediate any situation and prevent further violence,” McCray said.
Similar interactions are happening around the city. In Sandtown, Safe Streets has taken on 109 mediations that could have resulted in violence this year, and has so far recorded one homicide and one non-fatal shooting.
Greg Marshburn, the director of the Sandtown program who has worked for Safe Streets for eight years, agreed that the strength of the program comes from “the people we employ, the incredible messengers.”
“My employees have grown up with these individuals, and they still live here,” Marshburn said. “Who better to come to to mediate a situation?”
“We get a lot of beefing over drugs corners, or you took my sales,” Marshburn said.
In Belair-Edison in Northeast Baltimore, Safe Streets director Dante Johnson said he believes they have not had a homicide in the part of the community where his six employees are regularly deployed since November. He attributed his team’s success to their persistence.
“Somebody might not want to engage us, but we keep showing up,” he said.
When an individual does seek out resources, he said his team makes sure they are connected to whatever services they might need, be it food boxes, sneakers, job opportunities or drug treatment.
“We make sure that they get the red carpet treatment,” he said.
This is the third time the Cherry Hill site, which opened in 2008, has completed a full year without a homicide, having done so in 2015 and 2019.
The borders of Safe Streets sites don’t align entirely with the neighborhoods they serve.
Still, since last June, Cherry Hill Safe Streets has resolved 409 conflicts, 70 percent of which had a high risk of violence, meaning that those involved either had a gun or were to known to carry a gun, Jackson said.
Betty Baze, a long time board member of the Cherry Hill community organization, said she is “really proud of Safe Streets” and called the safety they have given her community “unexplainable.”
“A lot of young people have started stepping up and getting involved. They are getting different business, and us older people are their backbone,” she said. “And it is working, it is going to get better and better.”
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Brown, the hospital responder, said he was raised in Cherry Hill, worked on the corners selling drugs and was once shot himself.
“Most people who know me, know what I’ve been through,” he said.
Brown works at MedStar Harbor Hospital, which serves as a partner for the Safe Streets site, and is also where many victims of violence in the neighborhood are taken for treatment. Brown helps connect gunshot victims and others caught up in violence with services, such as mental health at the hospital, or whatever they might need.
In 2020, Brown and a second hospital responder saw more than 150 patients. Some listen, many do not.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “Out of 100, you only have 12% who are willing to listen.”
Though the work is challenging, Brown said he’s proud to see improvement in the community he said he once hurt.
“I’m very grateful about today,” he said. “We are standing on faith to push us through. Every day we wake up and fight tooth and nail just for the community to be safe.”