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We can cure violence

Baltimore can cure violence.

The doors to the ambulance bay swung open. "Young man with multiple gunshot wounds, lost his pulse en route," the paramedics told us as we rushed him into the trauma room. For nearly an hour, we gave him blood; we breathed for him; we cracked open his chest to massage his heart.

I remember telling his mother that we couldn't save him. The cry of a mother whose child has died is one that I will never forget. I found out that he was 14. It was his cousin who shot him. They'd had a fight about a pair of shoes.

Working in the ER, I've seen so much sadness. The worst tragedies are when young people die from preventable problems.

Violence prevention is a key function of public health. In many ways, violence is no different from an infectious disease. Just like measles or the flu, it is contagious and spreads from person to person. It creates fear and wreaks havoc. It results in illness, trauma and death.

The good news about viewing violence from a public health lens is that it means violence can be prevented and treated — far before the point that people are shot.

In 2007, Baltimore adopted this approach through a national model called Cure Violence; Safe Streets is our city's program. It is based on hiring outreach workers and violence interrupters to work on the streets and mediate conflicts in order to stop violent acts before they happen. In 2014, Safe Streets workers had 15,000 client interactions and mediated 880 conflicts, more than 90 percent of which were deemed to be likely or very likely to result in gun violence.

The numbers from our four sites speak for themselves. Cherry Hill has gone 411 days without a fatal shooting; Park Heights 369; McElderry Park 258; and Mondawmin 76. During the unrest and the subsequent rise in homicide, our Safe Street posts have not seen an increase in violent crime.

What makes the Safe Streets model work? An important reason is that our staff are often ex-offenders who come from the neighborhoods they serve. The most credible person to spread the message of non-violence is someone who has experienced the conflict they now seek to mediate. These are the people who have credibility to teach about alternatives to violence, about how a life is worth more than a pair of shoes.

Some have asked us about the "risk" of employing individuals with criminal backgrounds. We do not see it as a risk but rather as a privilege to give returned citizens a second chance at hope and employment. Our employees are our best assets. They have truly walked in the shoes of the people we are serving.

Also crucial are the partnerships that must be present for each program to succeed. This week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake led a recognition at our Cherry Hill site. We heard from faith leaders, police officers, community organizations, neighborhood associations and elected officials about how Safe Streets couldn't have taken root without the entire community's input. On streets torn apart, amid systems that marginalize and segregate, Safe Streets offers a way to bring people together to be present, to engage and to break the cycle of violence, hopelessness and incarceration.

To be sure, Safe Streets is not a panacea. Preventing violence is far from simple and requires a combination of approaches. Ultimately, violence has its roots in poverty, substance addiction, unmet mental health needs and rampant disparities. All of these underlying issues must also be addressed for us to have a just and safe city.

Last month was one of the deadliest months in Baltimore's recent history. As Mayor Rawlings-Blake said this week, Safe Streets offers a beacon of hope and shows us what is possible. Violence costs lives, but it can also be prevented, treated and perhaps even cured. As part of the mayor's OneBaltimore recovery efforts, let's continue to target our efforts on evidence-based, public health strategies that serve our neighborhoods and save the lives of our residents. Let's advocate for increased funding from private and federal partners so that we can bring the success of Safe Streets to the rest of our beautiful and healing city.

Dr. Leana Wen is the Baltimore City health commissioner. She can be reached at Twitter: @DrLeanaWen and @BMore_Healthy.

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