Street cred used to disrupt the norm in some of Baltimore's most violent areas

Baltimore is infected.

If violent crime is a disease, then after years of steady remission, a rise in homicide totals and non-fatal shootings shows it is starting to relapse.

But, deep inside some of this city's most important arteries, much like a vaccine, old pathogens of violence are working to inoculate the very disease they once helped create.

ABC2 spent a night with the Safe Streets operation in Park Heights.

It is one of four chapters around the city run by the Baltimore City Health Department; others include McElderry Park, Mondawmin and Cherry Hill.

In short, Safe Streets is a public health model aimed at curing violence as if it is a disease.

ABC2 News is the very first media organization trusted to go inside this program at the street level with television cameras, spending hours on a typical canvass, walking the streets with the men who once ruled them.

Go deeper into the crew, the process and success stories – Desktop only

Reformed now as outreach workers and so-called violence interrupters, the employees of Safe Streets spread a different message to the high risk youth following their old path.

What makes them listen?

"I come from these streets. I grew up here. This is where I am from… I am stopping another black brother from getting hurt, another black brother from going to jail. There are so many ways to throw your life away out here. Just trying to stop that, just trying to show them there is a different way," said an outreach worker known on the streets as Porky.

They are showing them a different way from the normal the incredibly tough streets have taught them. Walking through their small part of Lower Park Heights on a Thursday night, it didn't take long to see.

On the corner of a crowded McDonald's parking lot, two young men began a back and forth that was immediately interrupted by Safe Streets violence interrupter Aaron.

We have agreed not to publish or broadcast specifics, but Aaron put an end to it by simply telling both men there is a different way to resolve this and each should walk away.

Both men did walk away peacefully, and Aaron will later write up the mediation to revisit it later. It seems like an obvious lesson, but the code of these streets is altogether different.

Safe Streets data shows 96 percent of their mediations in Park Heights are "likely or very likely to result in gun violence." Had the mediation not happened at the brush-up we witnessed, Aaron explained, a violent incident was likely to ensue.

"If we weren't right there something definitely would have happened," Aaron said. "They know what our job description is, and things like that. So, if we hang in spots where something is liable to happen, they know we are standing there for something not to happen."

The reason why it doesn't happen in the more than 100 mediations they've done so far has everything to do with who the men are.

They are credible messengers.

The men have not been saints, each with extensive records, some violent and each from the very same streets from a different time in their lives.

Imhotep, the oldest and the group's supervisor, learned to walk with a limp, once paralyzed by a bullet in one of the very same corner stores we visited. He was part of what police back in the 90s called the Duct Tape Bandits… a serial robber.

Other transgressions carry their own street cred, immortalized in one of the most critically acclaimed shows about Baltimore's code of the streets.

Dante Barksdale is the Outreach Coordinator for Safe Streets, and in addition to his own criminal past is related to Nathan Barksdale, the inspiration he says for two characters on ‘The Wire.'

"He is actually two people on the wire," Barksdale said, "He is Bodie and Avon."  [And you're his cousin?] "Yes."  [So you know the life?] "Yes, exactly.  I can identify with it."  [And that is the credibility you guys drive from?]  "Exactly. You need steel to sharpen steel."

But the pen, as it most always does, may still prove mightier.

The Safe Streets project is backed by data but maintains absolutely no relationship with police. Work is done within the code of the streets.

Each outreach worker has a caseload of up to 20 participants or high risk youth they've identified as catalysts for violence in the area. The targets are counseled through mediations when necessary, home visits and a steady lesson in how to live off of the streets and outside their destructive norms.

In less than a year, Safe Streets of Park Heights says, 20 of their 50 targets have gotten jobs; a re-education of social norms by, in most cases, the only type of men who have the experience to teach them.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has studied the effects of the Safe Streets program since it was replicated here in Baltimore in 2007.

The four small sites where Safe Streets has been operating have shown "consistent evidence" of results.

Cherry Hill's operation, one of the oldest, is seeing the steepest decline in shooting incidents with the other three locations also statistically on a downward trend.

Park Heights has only been up and running since February 2013. Success in numbers is hard to quantify, but the campaign is already medicating a stubborn disease.

Making a difference is a good feeling. When outreach workers begin to notice things "clicking" with participants, there's a certain satisfaction.

"Yes, it happens all the time," Barksdale said. "This is the reward."

It's an unorthodox remedy slowly inoculating a plague that's been claiming lives on the streets for generations.

A deeper look at Safe Streets

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