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Crime

Review finds Safe Streets program lacks oversight; Baltimore mayor pledges $10 million to expand ‘violence intervention ecosystem’

An internal review of Baltimore’s Safe Streets anti-violence initiative found the program lacked oversight, and half of the workers described their training as inadequate. City officials announced the findings Wednesday, along with a $10 million investment to improve program operations and establish a “community violence intervention ecosystem.”

Experts have raised significant questions about whether Baltimore should rethink its approach to curbing gun violence after three Safe Streets workers were killed within about 18 months, with the most recent death in January. Researchers have also questioned whether the program model, which largely relies on people with knowledge of the streets and credibility in their communities to act as “violence interrupters” by de-escalating conflicts, is becoming outdated and needs to evolve.

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But rather than turn away from the approach, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott plans to invest more in Safe Streets, touting its past success while acknowledging room for improvement.

“We know that it works, but they haven’t had the support they needed,” he said.

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Scott said anti-violence efforts in Baltimore have often been fragmented and short-lived, but he believes one interconnected ecosystem with adequate investment will address that persistent issue.

The new additions will include more intensive outreach and services for gunshot victims, including hospital-based interventions, and life coaching for people likely to become involved in violence. The stakes are high, Scott said, because the city has recorded more than 300 annual homicides for the past seven years.

“I know that this city is more than the trauma that so many of us face each and every day,” he said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference outside Grace Medical Center in West Baltimore. “There are generations worth of inequity, disinvestment and neglect that we all must work together to heal from. Reducing violence in Baltimore is going to take investment, innovation, partnership and levels of collaboration that Baltimore has never seen before.”

Launched in 2007, Safe Streets has seen mixed results — and wide variation in success among its 10 sites. City officials completed their review of the program during the second half of 2021.

“There has historically been a lack of standardized policy coming out of the City government office responsible for the program,” officials wrote in a report outlining the findings. “No standard operations manual exists. A lack of guidance has created operational challenges.”

High staffing turnover, persistent vacancies at some sites and relatively low salaries have also presented challenges over the years, the report says.

Meanwhile, 63% of employees said they had been traumatized by their work mediating conflicts, 60% reported having been direct victims of gun violence themselves, and 67% said they frequently worried about losing their jobs over funding shortages. Violence interrupters typically make between $40,000 and $45,000 per year, though officials said Wednesday they would like to increase salaries.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland are working on a more comprehensive study of Safe Streets that should be released early next year.

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In the meantime, Scott said his administration will use $10 million in federal funding to create a community violence intervention ecosystem with Safe Streets at its center — an approach aimed at “connecting disparate, one-off efforts and covering more ground.”

That includes creating new positions in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement to oversee Safe Streets and the other initiatives. The money will also fund at least 30 contracts with “trusted grassroots organizations,” officials said.

Currently, 10 Safe Streets sites cover 2.6 square miles of the 90-square-mile city.

The upcoming changes will include more hospital-based intervention efforts, which involve outreach workers approaching gunshot victims in the immediate aftermath of violence and seeking to prevent retaliation while getting people connected with support services.

“We see that episodes of violence become repeating cycles of violence,” said Daniel Blum, president of Grace Medical Center, where leaders of LifeBridge Health recently established an outreach initiative for victims. “By connecting with people when they are receiving medical care, we have a window of opportunity … to help break away from the cycle of violence.”

The mayor’s office is also launching a new “Victim Services Lane” focused on improving resources available to victims of gun violence. And for Safe Streets workers themselves, the city will provide more robust mental health resources and bulletproof vests, officials said.

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“Every shooting and violent incident leaves behind a web of trauma — for the victim, as well as bystanders, families, neighbors, and even the perpetrators of violence,” officials wrote in their report. “Particularly in Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods, which have borne the brunt of gun violence over decades, this trauma has been compounded year after year, incident after incident.”

Baltimore is one of 16 jurisdictions participating in a White House initiative launched last year to address rising gun violence using money from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that Congress passed in March 2021.

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The guiding principle is investing in community-based services and offering people an alternate path in the face of potential gun violence.

“This is what healing the soul of our nation looks like in action,” said White House Intergovernmental Affairs Director Julie Rodriguez, who also spoke during the Wednesday news conference.

The new efforts in Baltimore will unfold alongside an existing Group Violence Reduction Strategy, a law-enforcement-led program now being piloted in the Western District that involves identifying people most likely to become shooters or victims then offering to help them, for example, with securing housing, addiction treatment or job training. Officials plan to add intensive life-coaching services to that roster.

Scott included funding to increase program staffing in his proposed 2023 budget released Monday, saying past attempts lacked adequate investment. He also pledged an additional $13 million in American Rescue Plan funding for that program.

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All these efforts will come together to create a robust anti-violence ecosystem, Scott said.

“It will take the entire weight of our city to reduce violence in our communities,” said Shantay Jackson, director of the neighborhood safety office. “I am confident that the village will step up and do that.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Darcy Costello contributed to this article.


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