Dante Barksdale, the well-known face of Baltimore’s violence-prevention program Safe Streets who helped lead the crime-fighting initiative for more than a decade, was shot to death Sunday, city officials confirmed.
Barksdale, fondly known as “Tater,” was shot in the head in the Douglass Homes housing project around 11:15 a.m. A few weeks earlier, one resident said, he had delivered winter coats to families at the complex.
Mayor Brandon M. Scott, in a news release, called Barksdale the “heart and soul” of Safe Streets.
“My heart is broken with the loss of my friend Dante Barksdale, a beloved leader in our community who committed his life to saving lives in Baltimore,” Scott said. “His death is a major loss to Safe Streets, the communities they serve, and the entire City of Baltimore.
“I will not let those who chose to violently take his life dampen the light of his work.”
Erricka Bridgeford, the activist who leads the Baltimore Ceasefire 365 initiative, said Barksdale was a confidant. Sunday afternoon, she visited the spot where he was shot and called his loss “devastating.”
“For all of us who are warriors in this [violence prevention], this is a war cry, to get this work done” she said.
Southeast District officers found Barksdale suffering from the gunshot wound near the 200 block of Douglass Court. He was transported to nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Police initially reported an incorrect location of the incident.
The circumstances surrounding Barksdale’s death were not immediately clear. Homicide detectives are investigating.
Barksdale’s death stunned community members and city officials.
“His life was dedicated to preventing this type of stuff from happening,” said James Timpson, a former Safe Streets leader who now runs the Roca youth violence prevention program. “Nobody can believe that this happened.”
Safe Streets outreach workers mediate disputes in the hopes of de-escalating conflicts. They also lead public education campaigns and work closely with faith-based organizers and community members — and explicitly not with police — to steer young people away from violence. The program has been hailed as one of the city’s most effective crime-fighting tools.
Barksdale had a personal connection to the systems of crime and aggression that he sought to dismantle. He had served time in prison, and was the nephew of Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, the notorious Baltimore man whose crimes and run-ins with police inspired characters and storylines in the hit HBO series “The Wire.”
In a memoir published in November 2019, “Growing Up Barksdale,” he recounted his introduction to the Safe Streets program in 2008, through mentor Leon Faruq.
“I was tired of getting locked up, of getting robbed by police, of having to keep an eye out at all times,” he wrote. “I wanted a regular job. And it seemed the universe had one in mind for me.”
“My reputation as a hustler would help the Safe Streets mission, more than any amount of training could. No one would suspect alliance with BPD. Nobody could accuse me of not understanding.”
Police have had a strained relationship with Safe Streets in the past, with officers doubting its workers have left their criminal ways behind. Before his work with Safe Streets, Barksdale has said, he was locked up on bogus charges and robbed by Gun Trace Task Force Det. Daniel Hersl, who is serving 18 years in prison.
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who visited the scene Sunday morning, praised Barksdale’s efforts.
“His work in outreach, mediating conflicts and reducing gun violence in our city was invaluable and he embodied a message of redemption and peace to the many young people of our city,” Harrison said in a statement.
Shantay Jackson, director of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, added that Barksdale “turned his life around and worked tirelessly ... to prevent gun violence in our communities by working with those who were at the highest risk of being a shooter or the victim of shooting.”
City Council President Nick J. Mosby called Barksdale a friend and said he grieves “with countless others at the murder of this exceptional man.”
“For the last decade, Dante Barksdale used his life to save others by preventing gun violence on our streets and confronting Baltimore’s horrendous cycle of violence that traumatizes families and entire communities. And he beat a myriad of odds to do it...,” Mosby said in a statment. “He had an outsized impact on Safe Streets through his masterful conflict mediation skills, the passion he demonstrated in his commitment to peace and his steady presence in reducing crime on behalf of this city he absolutely loved.”
Sunday afternoon at Douglass Homes, a blood trail remained on the ground, leading from a parking lot into one of the housing complex’s courts. Otherwise, there were few signs that a killing had occurred hours before.
One resident, who did not want to give her name, said she heard there had been a shooting but did not know who the victim was. Upon learning it was Barksdale, she fondly recalled how he had dropped off winter coats a few weeks earlier and had previously given away food.
A police spokeswoman said the department could not immediately provide any information about the case, including a suspect description or a possible motive.
Bridgeford, who leads the Ceasefire weekends, said losing someone like Barksdale will make some question whether Baltimore can be saved. She said Barksdale often bemoaned the limits on what he was able to accomplish.
“But now,” Bridgeford offered, “this man’s soul is unleashed, in a dimension where he will now be able to do miraculous things to help us in the work we’re doing in Baltimore.”
Anyone with information is asked to call detectives at (410) 396-2100. Those wishing to remain anonymous can call Metro Crime Stoppers at 1-866-7lockup.