Venture out into East Baltimore's McElderry Park neighborhood after a shooting and you're likely to come across Gardnel Carter, a hulking, 48-year-old man who spent two decades in prison for murder.
Along with a crew of men with similar backgrounds, dressed in matching orange and black jackets, he mingles with drug dealers and gang members, discussing what went down and going over their next moves. Police cruisers often pull up, with officers barking for them to scatter.
But Carter isn't one of the usual suspects. His job is to curb violence. Since 2007, he's been a key member of Safe Streets, a program that treats the city's stubborn violence as a public health crisis requiring intervention.
With hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, ex-offenders and former gang members such as Carter are paid to use their street credibility to mediate disputes with a high risk for violence. Such efforts are extremely delicate, requiring that Safe Streets' employees maintain connections to the criminal element and conduct their work in the shadows.
And last week, unsealed federal court records raised troubling questions about the merits of granting such autonomy to offenders working so close to the edge. Drug Enforcement Administration agents alleged that a Safe Streets worker in West Baltimore was actually a heroin-dealing street commander of the powerful Black Guerrilla Family gang. They say he used his gang intervention work to make frequent contacts with drug dealers and gang members appear legitimate.
Though no one from Carter's program was charged, the 163-page affidavit contained a single allegation from an unnamed source that the East Side Safe Streets program is "controlled" by the BGF and helps gang members get jobs after their release from prison.
Those developments were enough to prompt Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who less than a month ago awarded $1 million to Carter's program, to suspend all funding pending a review. Its Monument Street office has been shuttered, and operations are on hold.
It's the latest obstacle the group has had to overcome, following the death of a crucial leader and an explosion of violence last summer. While Safe Streets' funding is in flux, advocates for the program say the stakes are even higher on the streets, where a delay in services and accusations that the group is affiliated with a particular gang could have dire consequences.
Workers said they are receiving cross looks amid rising tensions, and are scrambling to disassociate themselves from the unrelated West Side program and an accusation that they say is unfounded.
"All we rely on is our credibility and our name," said outreach worker Corey Winfield. "I don't have no badge, or the state of Maryland behind me. … I'm at the OK Corral with no protection."
On Friday, about 50 community members from East and South Baltimore, where another Safe Streets program is administered by a separate organization, rallied at City Hall demanding that the mayor reinstate funding.
"We support the mayor and we understand the need for them to look into what's happening, but at the same time, these are fragile communities, and without Safe Streets, I'm very concerned that there's going to be more shootings, more homicides," said James Piper Bond, whose Living Classrooms Foundation administers the East Side program. "We need to get back to work."
Voice of experience
The Safe Streets concept began in 1999 with a program called CeaseFire, based in Chicago. It was predicated on a theory that violence is a health epidemic that, like diseases, can be dramatically reduced by changing behaviors, or at least managing them. In this case, the change agents would be ex-offenders and gang members, seen as the only ones who could get the ear of troubled youth.
Daniel Webster, a Johns Hopkins University professor who has studied Baltimore's gun violence for years, said the concept comes with the same risk and reward as needle exchange programs.
"These types of things make government officials queasy," Webster said. "But like needle exchanges, this has proven to be successful. It comes down to a political question of, ‘Can you withstand the heat that is likely to come when you address gangs and illegal things through means other than law enforcement?' "
When the concept was exported to Baltimore in 2007, the city Health Department initially identified three areas to implement the program — the Poppleton/Hollins Market neighborhoods in West Baltimore (which a year later was defunded); Cherry Hill in South Baltimore; and McElderry Park. Each would be overseen by a different nonprofit, using $1.5 million in start-up grants provided by the U.S. Department of Justice and additional funds from donors. Today it costs about $350,000 a year to run the program at each site.
Outreach workers, sometimes with records that mirror those of the criminals and gang members they are trying to counsel, are the most crucial part of the program, advocates say.
James Peterkin, a 38-year-old resident who joined a recent Safe Streets neighborhood walk, said young people don't trust police and need a program such as Safe Streets to turn to.
"Otherwise, they're not going to talk to nobody. They're going to keep whatever they know to theyself, and the violence is going to continue," he said. "We is in a real crazy city right now. It's like God is holding back the angels for some reason."
The Safe Streets workers try to connect at-risk young people with educational resources and job training. They sponsor dances and cookouts, and have an office with computers and workout equipment. But they realize not everyone will be receptive. For some clients, Carter says, it's not about getting them "out of the game," but "changing the game."
Carter is evasive when pressed on what that approach might entail — "whatever it takes," he said — but Safe Streets workers in Chicago used tactics such as setting boundaries for rival dealers or negotiating installment plans for repayment of drug debts, according to a 2008 study. Workers in both cities preach that violence is bad for business, drawing police attention and disrupting their ability to make money.
"They walked a fine line between their past and present, and between legal and illegal realms," researchers wrote in the study, by employing "street rules and logics when mediating property, gang, and personal conflicts."
In Baltimore, Safe Streets workers do not interact with police. In fact, law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, say they believe workers actively encourage their clients not to cooperate with police. And yet, the group's affiliation with the city raises questions for some on the streets.
That highlights one of Safe Streets' more perplexing dilemmas: while law enforcement is suspicious that Safe Streets workers are involved in crime, some of the programs' potential clients are paranoid that Safe Streets is working with police.
One of Safe Streets' first major interventions in Baltimore came when a young man told Carter there was a price on his head, and that his would-be attackers were circling the block as they spoke, getting ready to strike.
"We needed to bring everybody together," Carter says, recounting the incident. He found out the names of those involved and dispatched outreach workers to round them up. The room was eventually packed with at least 25 people, most on the aggressor's side and ready to fight.
Carter determined the catalyst for the dispute: One man had been coming into his rivals' territory to talk to girls, and looked at someone else the wrong way. Carter says he got the two men to sit down alone, shake hands and hug.
"That's one of the worst things you can do in this neighborhood, is stare someone down," Carter said. "A lot of them, they're real insecure. So their ego is their driving force."
There are heat-of-the-moment conflict resolutions, and then there are longer-term mediations, such as peace treaties. Safe Streets' leaders say they have persuaded several rival groups to agree not to draw blood when they have a dispute, and they claim the groups have adhered to those terms ever since. Outreach worker Dante Barksdale, 36, said persuading young men to stop wearing "flags" — bandanas that signified their gang affiliation — was a simple but powerful change.
There is evidence the approach works. For a 17-month stretch from 2007 to 2008, Webster's review found there were no fatal shootings in McElderry Park. A survey of the program's young clients also suggested their attitudes about guns and violence were shifting.
But the Hopkins study also showed that nonfatal shootings hadn't fallen nearly as much in Safe Streets areas as in some of the city's other high-crime areas. And around the same time Safe Streets launched in 2007, the city Police Department began an initiative that poured plainclothes officers into high-crime areas — including McElderry Park — to target historically violent individuals.
Safe Streets reached a crucial moment last summer. Leon Faruq, its director and spiritual leader, died from kidney disease in late June at age 58. The next month, violence exploded in McElderry Park. In a single incident, eighteen people were shot, including a Safe Streets worker who was making his rounds. By the end of the year, three people had been killed within the post's boundaries and another 10 in the immediate area.
In January, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III suggested Safe Streets had lost its way.
"I can't help but be concerned that we suffered a big setback with the death of Leon Faruq," Bealefeld said during an appearance on WYPR. "They have not really come back the way and functioned the way they had under Leon's leadership. These are great programs, but they're so completely dependent on dynamic leadership."
Bond praised Carter's leadership, saying he has been a key force from the very beginning and has assembled a reliable team. Both forcefully deny any connections to the man federal court papers identify as a BGF leader in charge of the program.
Outbreak of violence
On a cool, damp Thursday night recently, Carter stood alone on the sidewalk behind yellow police tape as officers finished up at a crime scene where two teenagers had just been shot. He was on the phone, incredulous.
"This is crazy, man," he said. "This stuff is getting ridiculous."
About an hour earlier, Carter and other violence interrupters walked through the same block to condemn a shooting from three days earlier, marching with bullhorns and calling for a stop to the violence. No sooner had he settled back into his office when police cruisers and ambulances screamed by in response to the double-shooting, in the same spot.
Carter stayed on the phone trying to find out what was behind the dispute as a colleague left for the hospital to try to establish contact with the family. Carter was hearing that the victim was only 13.
"Was he meant to get hit?" Carter asked over the phone.
In the days that followed, Safe Streets workers marched through the streets, again calling for an end to violence, with residents timidly standing in their front doors and hanging out windows in quiet approval. Behind the scenes, workers got in touch with the victim's family and tried to determine what the conflict was about.
They believe the incident has been quashed, for now, though they know that months, even years can go by before some decide to retaliate. There hasn't been a homicide in the program's two main areas in more than four months, but maintaining calm will hinge on staying in touch with the key players. They say that work will continue informally, even as Safe Streets' operations are shelved as City Hall conducts a review.
"Each one of those outreach workers has a dozen or so high-risk individuals who look up to them, who are in a fragile place and can go one way or the other," Webster said.
Carter stood outside the Monument Street office on a recent weeknight with outreach worker Tard Carter, 33, as men passed by on the sidewalk, shaking hands and chatting briefly. They said they remain focused on their mission.
"You've got to be passionate about this," Tard Carter said. "The only thing that turns off is the money. We live this."