Safe Streets Cherry Hill and Family Health Centers of Baltimore work together to help stop the violence in the neighborhood.
Dressed in orange sweatshirts, the group took to the streets of Cherry Hill this week calling out: “It’s time to stop shooting and start living!”
“We are here to intervene and interrupt,” someone shouted into the microphone. “Put the guns down and settle our differences and stop the senseless killings.”
The group of Safe Streets workers, whose job it is to intervene in disputes to prevent violence, have experience with rallying a community after a killing. But responding to slaying is something, until this week, they hadn’t had to do for over a year in this South Baltimore neighborhood.
Two shootings in Cherry Hill left three people dead this week, and the body of another person was found in the water nearby. The spate of violence broke a 395-day streak without a homicide in the neighborhood.
“I don’t want to see people die or get hurt regardless of the community they are in,” said Antoine Boyd, who works with Safe Streets. “I’m saddened and concerned, but there’s a little bit of a pep in my step to try and figure out what we can do to de-escalate what’s happening.”
The violence in the neighborhood began Sunday when officers found 31-year-old Keith Thomas shot to death in a car in the 900 block of Coppin Court around 10:30 a.m.
One day later, three people were shot — two fatally — less than a block away from where Thomas was killed.
Davon Stewart, 41, was shot in the chest, police said, and died at the scene. Detrell Garvin, 28, was shot in the head and taken to an area hospital, where he died a day later, police said. A 27-year-old man also was injured in the shooting. Police have not released his name.
City Councilman Edward Reisinger, who represents the area, said he heard Monday’s triple shooting was retaliation for Thomas’ killing.
Police declined to confirm whether the two shootings were related, but Baltimore Police Southern District Commander Byron Conaway said the department is shifting resources to “gain intelligence with hopes of thwarting any potential retaliation.”
“This past weekend's recent violence in the Cherry Hill community was very disappointing and disheartening,” Conaway said. “This is unacceptable.”
Violence has been a problem in Cherry Hill for years.
Tensions once ran so high that a shooting broke out during a “truce party” between two gangs in 2007. Authorities cracked down on crime and took dozens of gang members off the streets in late 2013.
Though Cherry Hill’s streak without killings ended his week, residents and city officials remain hopeful that Safe Streets will help prevent further violence.
Safe Streets Baltimore is a city-run organization that began in 2007 and is embedded in six neighborhoods across the city. It aims to intervene during conflicts between community members before they turn violent. Many of Safe Streets employees live in the neighborhoods and have been incarcerated themselves.
The program has not been without problems — former employees have faced criminal charges and one location was shut down after a raid in 2015. Its recruiting practices have been criticized as well.
But the Cherry Hill location is considered one of Safe Streets’ most successful, said Brian Hawkins, CEO of Family Health Centers of Baltimore, which hosts the Safe Streets office in its Cherry Hill clinic. The shared location helps, Hawkins said.
“No other location has these wrap-around services and is as integrated with mental health care,” he said. “It doesn’t make us better than any other location, but it does give us a leg up.”
Because of the clinic’s partnership, trained trauma counselors are able to embed with the Safe Streets team to provide residents with mental health resources, employment opportunities, housing assistance and other health care services.
“It’s about prevention,” Hawkins said. “Because people turning to violence is a mental health thing, so we are trying to interrupt and stop that before it even happens.”
About two years ago, Safe Streets partnered with MedStar Harbor Hospital to have two hospital responders allocated to talk with individuals coming into the emergency room to better understand any potential issues within the community.
Reisinger said the first thing he did when he heard about Sunday’s shooting was call Safe Street leaders. They already had been notified, were responding and knew what happened.
“Police get reports, but Safe Streets is ears on the ground,” the councilman said.
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Reisinger said the workers go “beyond the call of duty” to help the neighborhood by constantly walking around and talking with people. He also said the workers make sure kids are addressing trauma, in hopes of stopping the cycle of violence.
Safe Streets team members, as well as Reisinger and City Councilman Zeke Cohen, spent one morning this week greeting students at a local elementary school, right at the edge of the street that saw the fatal shootings, to make sure teachers and counselors were talking with the kids.
“You need people you can trust and talk with,” said Aaron Hannah, a pastor and longtime Cherry Hill resident. “Homicides don’t get resolved in crowds, they get resolved with intimate conversations.”
Cherry Hill resident Ebony Harvin said this week’s violence ripped a Band-Aid off old wounds. Three years ago her 26-year-old son, Nicholas Maultsby, was shot and killed in the neighborhood.
“When will we start putting ‘live in peace’ on shirts instead of ‘rest in peace,’” Harvin shouted into a microphone. “It’s time to let our young people know it’s OK to live to be old.”