Safe Streets prevention program faces questions after indictment

The reputation that Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale gained as one of Baltimore's most notorious heroin dealers also made him a good outreach worker for Safe Streets, an innovative program that enlists former offenders to help mediate disputes before they erupt in gunfire.

The fact that Barksdale had survived more than 20 gunshot wounds and once controlled lucrative drug territory in West Baltimore gave him credibility on the street. Then last week the supposedly reformed Barksdale was indicted again, accused of dealing drugs as a member of the Black Guerrilla Family gang.


The accusations come as city officials continue to boost funding to the Safe Streets program, run by community groups with taxpayer dollars and help from the city health department. A new site opened earlier this year.

"We know that Safe Streets works," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in an interview. "I am not going to let one person destroy that progress."


But while city officials say the indictment has not shaken their faith in Safe Streets, they acknowledge the challenge of finding employees who have broken free of their past without compromising their credibility.

Federal authorities tied Safe Streets members to the Black Guerrilla Family in 2010. Rawlings-Blake immediately froze funding to the two sites operating at the time. She also created a task force that recommended the East Baltimore unit tighten its employee screening and improve safety policies.

Barksdale is not accused of involving the program in illegal activity.

City Councilman Brandon M. Scott pledged to question police and health department officials about Barksdale's indictment and whether city officials made the changes recommended in 2010, as promised.

"Whether they did or not is up for argument," he said.

Daniel Webster, a Johns Hopkins professor who worked on a study of Safe Streets' effectiveness, said the indictment highlights the need to closely manage the program. He said organizers must take steps to keep workers safe and to help them resist the temptation to fall back into bad habits.

"We need rigorous hiring, oversight, and management of people employed to reduce violent crime," he said.

A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study last year estimated that Safe Streets had reduced fatal shootings by five and other shootings by 35 over three years, and notably cut violence in the neighborhoods with a program. The study compared Safe Streets neighborhoods with other violent parts of the city and controlled for variables like increased police activity.


Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor would like to expand Safe Streets.

"If more funds can be identified, she is certainly willing to work with the community and explore additional possibilities for growing the program," he said.

The Safe Streets sites are run by community organizations but have a web of ties to authorities. The majority of the funding comes from the federal government, and the Baltimore Health Department organizes training for the community groups that run Safe Streets in four city neighborhoods.

The program's total annual funding is $1.4 million. It relies on a small group of employees charged with mediating in situations that might lead to an outbreak of violence. They also work to change attitudes toward the use of guns.

Between July 2007 and the end of 2010, Safe Streets workers mediated 276 conflicts, according to the Hopkins study — the vast majority involving armed gang members.

Darrell Berry, 36, who worked at the Safe Streets location in Mondawmin, was unable to escape the violence in the neighborhood.


He was shot and killed in late October in the 2200 block of N. Fulton Ave. a block from the recreation center Safe Streets uses as a base in the neighborhood. The case is still open, but police said they do not believe Berry's death was connected to his work.

Meanwhile, the charges against Barksdale illustrate the tightrope that Safe Streets walks in finding employees who know the reality of life in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods and have themselves been involved in crime, but who are able to act independently and moderate disputes.

Barksdale fit that profile, outreach workers said.

In the 1980s, he terrorized housing projects in West Baltimore as a high-profile heroin dealer. He has been shot more than 20 times, according to law enforcement officials, and claimed to be the inspiration for the Avon Barksdale character in "The Wire."

Barksdale had been working with Safe Streets in the city's Mondawmin neighborhood since July 2012, using his gravitas to intervene in disputes before they ended in shots fired. Delaino Johnson, a Safe Streets veteran who directs the Mondawmin branch, said Barksdale's efforts had "a hell of an impact.

"From my standpoint he did good work with us," Johnson said. "He had a large impact on reducing violence in our targeted area."


While Safe Streets is generally careful to keep its distance from police to avoid the appearance that information is being shared with law enforcement, a representative from the Baltimore Police Department has a vote in hiring decisions.

As part of the hiring process, police perform background checks on applicants and program leaders regularly scan databases for new charges against employees. Safe Streets declines to hire anyone with open criminal cases, according to the health department, and being charged with a felony or violent crime while on the job means suspension without pay.

Barksdale was fired when he did not show up for work after his arrest last week.

He was accused of having ties to the Black Guerrilla Family gang in a federal affidavit in 2010 — before he was hired at Safe Streets — but DEA spokesman Edward Marcinko said that information might not have been readily available to police. Barksdale denied any affiliation with the gang at the time.

Then last week, Barksdale was arrested by U.S. Marshals. The Drug Enforcement Administration alleges he is a senior member of the Black Guerrilla Family, which in a separate case has been accused of running a massive smuggling operation at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Barksdale remains in federal custody and his attorney declined to comment.


Marcinko said there was no evidence that Barksdale used his Safe Streets job to further alleged heroin dealing.

Frederick H. Bealefeld III, the former Baltimore police commissioner, said that the charges are not surprising because Safe Streets relies on people at the fringes of criminality to be effective.

Some police officers who work the streets are skeptical about Safe Streets, he said, and the charges will confirm their views and "provide them ammunition and reason not to engage.

"But I think that would be a mistake," he said.

While he emphasized that charges against one employee should not be used to undermine the whole endeavor, he also called for careful evaluation and management of its workers.

"It would be hard to be a recovering alcoholic living over a bar," he said. "It's very very difficult work, there's no question. ... Somebody really kind of has to be watching your back and helping."


The DEA previously described links between the program and the Black Guerrilla Family, which police say drives much of the Baltimore's violent crime, in the 2010 case.

Two people who worked at a West Baltimore nonprofit that once had links to Safe Streets were charged with being major gang figures, and an affidavit filed as part of the case alleged that a separate East Baltimore Safe Streets site had been taken over by the gang.

Rawlings-Blake's task force searched for signs of Black Guerrilla Family infiltration, but the review found no evidence of a gang problem inside the program.

Despite the problems, Scott said the program's unusual approach is a valuable addition to traditional crime-fighting agencies as Baltimore continues to battle against violence.

"It can't just be about police, it can't just be about City Hall and it can't just be about the state's attorney's office," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.