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Safe Streets program launches summer initiative to fight Baltimore’s violence and offer alternative to police-only approach

Safe Streets Belair-Edison site director Dante Johnson speaks Tuesday at the launch event for the Safe Summer 2021 initiative. The announcement comes as Baltimore battles crippling violence, leaders grasp for solutions and the Safe Streets organization's 10 facilities across the city show signs they are making a difference.
Safe Streets Belair-Edison site director Dante Johnson speaks Tuesday at the launch event for the Safe Summer 2021 initiative. The announcement comes as Baltimore battles crippling violence, leaders grasp for solutions and the Safe Streets organization's 10 facilities across the city show signs they are making a difference. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

After a particularly deadly weekend, as city leaders grapple with how to quell violence, leaders of the antiviolence group Safe Streets said they are working to expand their reach and called on the community for increased support.

“Safe Streets has demonstrated year after year that, in our communities, we can reduce violence,” said Dante Johnson, Site Director at the Living Classrooms’ Safe Streets Belair-Edison Safe Streets site. Safe Streets, with 10 locations in the city, work to reduce violence by hiring reformed criminals who try to intervene in disputes before violence breaks out.

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Now, Johnson and other Safe Streets workers are working to reach out beyond their perspective neighborhoods to have a greater impact on the city, and on Tuesday, the group launched its “Safe Summer 2021″ campaign.

The launch follows a Memorial Day weekend in which nine people were killed in Baltimore, and comes at a time when many residents are searching for solutions outside of law enforcement to address crime.

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Mayor Brandon Scott said the new campaign is part of an overall “overall comprehensive strategy” to address city violence, which cannot rely just on police.

“We have to rethink strategies,” Scott said in an interview, “to quell down some of the nonsense.”

Scott said, small, petty beefs are getting people killed at “more alarming clip.” Police can adjust deployment strategies to address crimes of opportunities, but they simply cannot prevent every act of violence, which is why intervention efforts are critical, he said.

Scott noted that in the triple homicide Sunday in the Central Park Heights, police officers were deployed in the area, and heard the shots.

The new Safe Streets campaign aims to encourage more violence prevention by identifying potential hotspots, increasing coordination among the ten Safe Streets and community groups, and strengthening community involvement through canvassing and other efforts.

“We know that we can get to our people and that we make a difference. We recruit the highest risk. We mediate conflict, we intervene and we change community norms by way of mobilizing the community,” Johnson said.

Since the Belair-Edison site opened in June 2019 in Northeast Baltimore, there have been 8 homicides, and zero since December, Johnson said. There has only been one shooting so far this year, Johnson said, and the group has overseen 679 conflict resolutions.

“We want to reach out to outside our immediate zones, and create partnerships with those zones, and reduce violence across the city,” Johnson said. “We’re predicting to have the safest summer in Baltimore history.”

Johnson said the improvement in fighting violence coincides with the opening of a Belair-Edison community Safe Streets site in 2019.

“A lot of success,” Johnson said, noting “a lot of community buy in.”

But Johnson said he remains troubled by the violence he’s seeing elsewhere in the city, and said the hope is by expanding the number of Safe Street sites in Baltimore, it can reduce violence citywide.

”That’s what some of this initiative is about,” Johnson said.

Rita Cruise, President of the Belair-Edison Community Association, said she has seen the improvement since Safe Streets opened an office in her community.

“There was a time we didn’t feel safe. We didn’t want to go out of our homes just to go to the grocery store or anything like that. But now that we have Safe Streets, we feel safe. We really do,” she said.

She said the violence interrupters have also provided other services, such as computer space for kids in the neighborhood to do homework. Program associates often attend neighborhood gatherings. She said she regularly sees one man who she said is also a member of a gang but is helping to stop the violence.

“They’re actually doing the work and getting it done,” Cruise said.

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