Beloved Safe Streets leader Dante Barksdale was gunned down in 2021, leaving the city reeling without the heart and soul of its anti-violence program.
Since then, two more workers have been killed on the job — prompting alarm, safety concerns and questions about whether Baltimore needs to rethink its approach to curbing gun violence.
“Dante Barksdale was held in such high stature almost anywhere he was,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. “That someone would murder him — I was just shocked and horrified about what that could mean about Baltimore and Safe Streets and everything.
“By the time we got to the third worker being murdered, that really made me worried.”
Safe Streets, modeled after the Cure Violence program in Chicago, employs community members — people with knowledge of the streets and often criminal histories — as “violence interrupters.” They’re tasked with mediating conflicts before they turn deadly.
These peacekeepers have been working in Baltimore since 2007, but the program finds itself at a crossroads. With increased violence against its employees, and homicides surging citywide, what is the path forward?
Officials in the mayor’s office say now is the time to dig deeper and further expand what they call the community violence intervention ecosystem, seeking to meet a massive, entrenched problem with a large-scale solution. They said growing the Safe Streets program is what Barksdale would have wanted: “He would say, ‘Brandon, we got to go further,’” said Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott.
Violence interrupters Kenyell Wilson and DaShawn McGrier were shot to death in separate attacks within 13 months of Barksdale’s homicide. It’s not known if the three deaths are related to the men’s work, but officials acknowledge that the cluster of killings has prompted a look inward for answers.
An internal review of the Safe Streets program is expected to be released later this month, along with possible changes in response to the findings.
Leaders are working to make bulletproof vests available for workers on their nightly shifts, although some violence interrupters wonder if vests will make them look too much like police officers. One hurdle to overcome: State law requires someone with a conviction for a crime of violence or drug trafficking, which some Safe Streets staffers have, to get state police approval to wear body armor. In addition, workers will receive orange jackets to make them stand out.
Much of their time is spent canvassing neighborhoods, chatting with residents and gathering information about potential conflicts. For example, they want to know if someone from the community has recently been released from prison and might act on unfinished business, if rival gangs are beefing or if someone lost a bunch of money playing dice last night.
The city is also working with researchers at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland to produce a monthslong comprehensive study to gauge successes and best practices. And officials are pursuing a memorial fund for workers who are killed or injured on the job.
“We have to continue to evolve, because clearly violence is evolving in our city,” Scott said in a recent interview at the Belvedere Safe Streets site in Northwest Baltimore.
Across the room from the mayor, notes on a whiteboard tracked the outreach workers’ recent efforts — mediations, shooting scene responses and other forms of engagement — while noting fatal and nonfatal shootings within the site’s boundaries.
Researchers hope to determine whether pieces of the Safe Streets model, which originated almost three decades ago, are becoming outdated. Criminologists point to recent changes in crime trends, including the dissolution of some hierarchical gang structures, disputes arising on social media, increased domestic violence, more petty disagreements escalating into gunfire, and more multivictim shootings. Could those dynamics be creating a more dangerous environment for Safe Streets workers?
“We’re using the model developed in another age and hoping it works as well now as it did in the 1990s,” said Webster, who’s conducting the quantitative piece of the study. “I strongly suspect that’s not the case and the model needs to evolve.”
For example, social media has created an environment where arguments between individuals play out before a massive audience, and experts believe that dynamic increases violence.
However, Webster said he believes the model has a strong foundation: The underlying idea that so-called credible messengers can form relationships with those most at risk of getting involved in violence and help guide them down another path.
But he and other anti-violence experts warned against overlooking the myriad challenges of operating such a program, including the fine line that workers have to walk: maintaining knowledge of street-level dynamics without getting personally involved.
“There’s no such thing as the perfect street outreach worker or the perfect resume, and no single way to have credibility in a community,” said Thomas Abt, senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a Washington think tank. “But you need to be careful about when street outreach relies too much on personal connections, and not professional training.”
He said strong oversight and centralized training are key to addressing those issues.
Experts also raised questions about whether Safe Streets needs a larger footprint and more connectivity among its 10 sites, which together cover just 2.6 square miles of the city.
And they said workers should receive a decent salary — and a level of respect commensurate with the dangers of their job and the sacrifices often demanded of them. Salaries for Safe Streets violence interrupters range from $40,000 to $45,000, according to the mayor’s office. Access to robust mental health care is also key, experts said. Scott said these things are priorities for his administration.
During his State of the City address April 5, Scott focused largely on his anti-violence efforts, promising more extensive services for crime victims, such as life coaching and school-based supports.
Safe Streets is just one component of Baltimore’s approach to this work, but its progress will be watched closely across the country as other cities grapple with increased violent crime during the coronavirus pandemic.
In July, the mayor released a plan calling for a threefold expansion of violence intervention programs and an annual 15% reduction in gun violence over the next five years. In addition to Safe Streets, the plan outlined investments in hospital-based partnerships and Roca, a nonprofit organization helps at-risk young men with intensive intervention.
It also relaunched a group violence reduction strategy that offers people most likely to become involved in violence sustained engagement with community leaders, social service providers, employers and law enforcement. A pilot of that strategy is underway in the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District, and Scott proposed funding to increase the program’s staffing in his proposed 2023 budget released Monday.
Researchers say measuring the success of interventions like Safe Streets or Cure Violence can be challenging due to sample size and the difficulties of controlling for changing social norms. Plus, most studies have focused on outcomes rather than the processes or approaches along the way.
Understanding what work is being done, anything that lets researchers “pull back the curtain,” is important, said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“It’s like people walking into a restaurant and saying how wonderful this soup is … and then we all put our spoons down and walk out, and go home and try to make it ourselves — and no one thought to go back into the kitchen to talk to the chef and see how they made it,” Butts said.
Joseph Richardson, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, working alongside Webster on the comprehensive assessment, aims to get away from “bean counting” and 30,000-foot views to understand the context of city violence, conflict resolution and mediation. Tasked with producing a qualitative assessment, he plans to speak with interrupters, site leaders, community members, gun violence victims and residents who have participated in mediation.
Officials said each of the study’s dual assessments are being funded separately through state grants. At a recent meeting, the Baltimore Board of Estimates approved spending $126,479 in grant funds on Webster’s quantitative assessment. The amount of Richardson’s contract has not been finalized.
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“It’s very easy to make your assumptions about a program when three workers have died,” Richardson said. “But stories are very layered. And it’s up to us to really pull back the layers on those stories, to understand what happened and what’s going on in the streets, in terms of relationships and the complexity of relationships.”
Police arrested a man last spring on charges of killing Barksdale, but officials have said the motive remains unknown. Garrick L. Powell Jr. was seen talking with Barksdale before allegedly shooting him, detectives wrote in charging documents. No arrests have been made in the killings of Wilson and McGrier. When Wilson was shot in July, he had just left the Safe Streets office in Cherry Hill, planning to grab some food before a meeting, officials have said. McGrier, who had been with Safe Streets for about a month in the McElderry Park office, was also working the night he was killed in a quadruple shooting on East Monument Street.
“We cannot say definitively that Dante, DaShawn and Kenyell were targeted because of their roles in the Safe Streets program,” said Sydney Burns, spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. But she emphasized the importance of the planned changes to increase visibility of Safe Streets workers in the field.
In Baltimore, an early evaluation of Safe Streets found reductions in homicides and shootings at some of its sites. A more recent report, however, found effects waned over time and results varied widely from site to site.
Shantay Jackson, director of the neighborhood safety office, told The Baltimore Sun that there were “gaps” in evaluation periods before Scott took office in 2020, and that there wasn’t the “rigor around evaluation” that she hopes the new study will bring.
For many involved in the program, their work serves as a tribute to the colleagues they’ve lost. Even in the aftermath of those deaths — when shock collided with grief — violence interrupters showed up to work.
“We didn’t just sit back and mourn. We tried to prevent retaliations,” said Dante Johnson, who recently transitioned to a role overseeing violence prevention efforts on Jackson’s team after serving as director of the Safe Streets Belair-Edison site. “We’re still mourning the deaths of our soldiers, but the work has to continue.”