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Look south to reduce Baltimore's violence

Could Washington's "Simple City" have the solution to Baltimore's violence problems?

Baltimore's mayor has huddled with a vast array of local and federal law enforcement officials, as well as social policy experts from John Hopkins University, to create a strategy for combating the city's rising homicide rate, which skyrocketed — as I predicted during a Fox News Channel interview — in the aftermath of April's unrest following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. City leaders today even approved an unprecedented $6.4 million payout to Gray's family as a sort of "riot insurance."

Unfortunately, the top-down coalitions that the mayor has assembled will fail, as have other such approaches throughout the country, including in Cincinnati, Ohio, following the protest of a white police officer's shooting of young black man in 2001. The protest there, led largely by people who didn't live in the affected areas, included a yearlong boycott of the city by national civil rights officials and, like Baltimore, a staggering leap in the homicide rate along with the "nullification" of police, who became less aggressive in their law enforcement to avoid being charged with a crime or being called racist.

There are violence intervention methods that have demonstrated they can effectively bring about immediate change and improvement in the most violent neighborhoods, however. The best example is what happened in the late 1990s in Washington, D.C.'s Benning Terrace neighborhood, where the approach to violence reduction made headlines around the country and was later the subject of a PBS documentary.

Located in the far southeast section of the city, Benning Terrace, also known as "Simple City," was a notoriously violent public housing project. During a two-year period, there was a record number of homicides in the five block area because of two warring gang factions, the "Alabama Avenue" group and the "Circle" crew. All of this changed with one dramatic incident: the death of 12-year-old Darryl Hall.

On his way home from school in January, 1997, Hall, who was also said to be affiliated with a gang, was kidnapped and taken to a nearby park where his badly beaten body was found shot to death and frozen in a ravine. The national news stories that followed were an embarrassment to D.C. city officials, and plans were announced to call an all-out raid on the complex. While the combined city and federal law enforcement agencies were being mobilized, another mobilization was taking place in the offices of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which I founded in 1981 to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address the problems of their communities.

With years of experience in gang intervention, our leadership team had already been working with a group of ex-offenders called The Alliance of Concerned Men. This streetwise group of men had dedicated their lives to giving back to their community a small portion of what they had taken during their criminal past. Trusted by the city's predatory youth population, the police and the D.C. courts system, they moved freely in the community and established themselves as surrogate fathers and big brothers. When news of Darryl Hall's murder reached the alliance, they were instantly mobilized and ready to engage.

They persuaded the youth to attend a truce meeting in the downtown offices of the CNE. Also in attendance was D.C. Public Housing Authority Receiver David Gilmore. He agreed to employ 16 youth as interns in the building and grounds department with the leader of the Avenue as a foreman and the leader of the Circle a second foreman. As they came into the complex unified in removing the graffiti, hundreds of residents who once ran from them now rushed to greet them and children filled the playgrounds for the first time, enjoying a festive mood throughout the entire community. There was not a single gang related murder that we know of in Benning Terrace for over 10 years. Crime dropped dramatically in the contiguous neighborhoods as well. This approach has been organized into a violence reduction program that is being successfully implemented in other cities.

Valuable lessons were learned about the role of local neighborhood leaders in confronting and changing the behavior of some of the most predatory youth and converting them into ambassadors of peace — the kinds of lessons that Baltimore could use.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise; his email is bwoodson@cneonline.org.

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