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Rodricks: Baltimore needs to expand Safe Streets effort

A small contingent stands by during a Safe Streets rally near a recent shooting location on Parkwood at Ruskin avenues in December 2013.
A small contingent stands by during a Safe Streets rally near a recent shooting location on Parkwood at Ruskin avenues in December 2013. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

The shootings continue at a thoroughly sickening and depressing pace, tarnishing the city's reputation with more bloody infamy, but at least the people of Brooklyn, on the south side of Baltimore, got some pleasing news this week: The bust of a heroin and cocaine ring.

Fourteen people were indicted on drug and conspiracy charges. No one was charged with murder, but police believe the operation might have had something to do with the growing violence in the area over the last several months.

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"I'm sure this is only a start, but we'll take it," says Lisa Bowling, a homeowner who has complained about the growing number of prostitutes, drug addicts and drug dealers on the streets of Brooklyn.

Through the fall and into winter, there had been more than a dozen shootings in the area, followed in mid-December by the fatal stabbing of 83-year-old Jimmy Herget, known as "the mayor of Brooklyn." Overall, homicides in the Southern District were outpacing killings elsewhere in the city — a surge within a surge that goes back to the late winter of 2015.

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When, and how, does this madness end?

Those of us who remember the crack-infested 1990s, with more than 300 homicides per year, are forgiven if despondent; we thought we had seen the end of that long grind of violence and waste. Once, and only a few years ago, it seemed Baltimore was finally going to turn a corner.

But here we are again, with almost daily killings in what any observer from out of town would call a crisis.

So the police responded to Brooklyn. Good. They made a bust, and made a fuss about it on Monday, the day after The Baltimore Sun published a lengthy article about the violence and the utter frustration Baltimoreans of all stations feel.

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Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who was not made available for comment for Sunday's Sun article, had plenty to say Monday about the suggestion that the city lacks a clear plan for ending the surge.

"Those strategies and plans aren't always visible to the entire community on any given day," Davis said. "But anyone who doesn't think there's a plan, anyone who doesn't think there's a strategy, anyone who doesn't think that there's collaboration that's occurring between our law enforcement partners, both within the city and with our federal law enforcement partners, is choosing not to pay attention."

All due respect, but, given the pace of violence at this point, it's understandable that a Baltimorean wonders if the police have an effective strategy.

Moreover, there's a larger question about whether the police alone can prevent killings from taking place.

Drug commerce accounts for many of the shootings — particularly with the current demand for heroin by opioid addicts — but a lot of the violence stems from beefs of varying nature, personal grievances, retaliation, revenge. Violence is a contagion.

So while police can investigate crimes and make arrests, and while the arrests can lead to convictions and convictions to jail time, and while all of that makes the streets safer, all of that takes time. All of that is good, but all of that does little to keep some angry young guy from avenging the fatal shooting of his cousin tonight.

That's what Safe Streets does. It employs ex-offenders as "interrupters" who hear about looming violence and intervene to keep it from happening.

By now, Safe Streets has a record of effectiveness, but it is limited to only four sectors of the city. It has had personnel problems, but nothing more adult supervision couldn't fix.

And it's worth the fix.

Since last summer, Safe Streets has mediated 876 conflicts, with about 80 percent of them considered likely to lead to gun violence, according to the city health department.

The Safe Streets post in Cherry Hill had periods of 119 and 80 days without a fatal shooting in 2016; it had only one shooting through the first three months of this year. The Sandtown-Winchester post managed to go 213 days without a fatal shooting in 2016; it had only two shooting incidents in the first three months of this year. Two other posts, one in East Baltimore and the other in Park Heights, have been similarly effective.

And yet, Mayor Catherine Pugh, who says she is keen on "best practices," did not include money for Safe Streets in the first budget she sent to the City Council, and that prompted the council, full of new blood, to stage a revolt. Good for them. On Tuesday night, her spokesman said: "Mayor Pugh agrees it is a priority and is still negotiating funding levels, given the state is offering no funding."

So, the mayor should push her buddy, Gov. Larry Hogan, for some of the cash — about $2 million — needed to expand Safe Streets to a fifth location. There should be 10 locations, 20 if it maintains its effectiveness. Why is this even a question?

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