Baltimore's Safe Streets outreach program proven effective in curbing violence before it starts

Before bullets fly and the lights start flashing and before the sirens begin to wail and the guys in blue start shouting, that's when the outreach workers of Baltimore's Safe Streets are at their best.

They're called violence interrupters. They have one job to do: keep someone from making a life-ruining decision and perhaps save two lives.

There are about 25 of these specialists who live and work in some of Baltimore's historically most violent neighborhoods, as part of a Baltimore pilot program that launched in June 2007.

"People already know them … people respect them," Lori Toscano, director of Baltimore's Safe Streets, said.

Be sure to watch Thursday, Nov. 21 at 11 p.m. as we provide a first-ever behind-the-scenes look at Safe Streets.   

That's because the outreach workers have been there. Some have held the smoking gun, some may have even stood over the body.

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Months later they'd listen to the cold steel door click shut behind them with 10-20 years to reflect on why they pulled the trigger. They are what the program calls credible messengers, the healers, sent by the Baltimore City Health Department—not the police—to remedy Baltimore's endemically high rate of gun violence.

They are the prescription dose of reality battling against the infectious spread of violence, and it's working.

The concept of treating violence as a disease was pioneered by Dr. Gary Slutkin, of the University of Illinois in Chicago. Baltimore was the first city to replicate the Chicago model, which when launched in 2000, was called Ceasefire.

Sixteen American cities and seven foreign countries have since become adapting partners. An additional seven countries are currently exploring partnerships.

"It's a movement. It's much larger than me," Slutkin said.  "I'm very happy that a lot of cities and countries have picked it up but in fact it has a way to go."

Since launching in 2000, the program evolved from the name Ceasefire to Cure Violence. Eight Chicago neighborhoods were examined and tested over seven years. Five of the neighborhoods saw 100 percent drops in retaliation shootings. Two of the neighborhoods saw 50 percent drops in gun-related violence. There wasn't enough data to draw a conclusion from one of the neighborhoods. On average, the neighborhoods that apply the mediation method see between a 41 and 73 percent drop in gun related violence.

"I'm more consumed with how much has not been done," Slutkin said. "I feel that we've been validated scientifically and there is a lot of demand, but you take a place like Baltimore where 15 or 16 neighborhoods need it, but it's only in four."

Funds provided to the Baltimore City Health Department from the Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency (OJJDP) formed the bulk of the financial means needed to replicate the Cure Violence model and put youth outreach workers in four Baltimore neighborhoods. The program also received a $1 million grant from the City of Baltimore in its first few years, along with about $850,000 in foundation and private donor dollars. Since, the program has received additional funding from the city, OJJDP, local foundations, the Governor's Office of Crime Prevention and more.

Dr. Daniel Webster, of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, found significant reductions in gun crimes in three of the four neighborhoods in which Safe Streets operates.

"We were able to correlate the more mediations done … the greater reductions in homicides," Webster said. "What I've been saying for a very long time is you need programs like Safe Streets to get access and influence things that law enforcement might not be able to."

Webster conducted an independent evaluation of Safe Streets between 2007 and 2010, expecting that significant results wouldn't be noticeable for years.

"It surprised me," Webster said. "I was ready to be patient and wait a year or two in… If you were to talk to me at the beginning of this program, I wouldn't have sounded that way.

"What's remarkable is how quickly they've driven down violence," Webster continued. "And they didn't just snap their fingers and everybody stopped selling drugs… They went in with a harm reduction approach."

Safe Streets' Baltimore director Lori Toscano has been in charge since the outreach effort launched in June 2007. She said the youth outreach workers know the subjects in need of mediation personally about 9 out of 10 times.

"We're lucky in this city that everyone realizes we have a role to play to increase safety in this city," Toscano said. "Our objective is to get to people before they go over the line."

Safe Streets has tweaked its strategy since 2010, adding neighborhoods Mondawmin and Park Heights, in lieu of dropping Madison-Eastend and Elwood Park. The approach of targeting larger areas by compounding side-by-side neighborhoods wasn't working as effectively.

"I need more sites," Toscano said, "in areas that are seeing disproportionate rates of homicides… Unfortunately it comes down to finances and funding."

The violence interrupters are paid for their work, which includes face-to-face mediations of potentially volatile situations.

Toscano offered the example of escalating tension, rising from a dispute over someone talking to someone else's girlfriend. Although, hypothetical, the verbatim incident played out in Upper Fells Point on Oct. 5 that ended in two brothers being shot to death and a 26-year-old arrested and charged with murder.

"It's unfair that people have grown up thinking that this is how you solve your problems… because of what people have told you," Toscano said. "People we're working with haven't been taught that before… These are guys that can come in and say ‘that is wrong… there is an easier way.'"

Homicide is the leading cause of death in black males between the ages of 15 and 24, Webster noted in his evaluation of Safe Streets. In 9 out of 10 cases victims are shot to death.

"We can't get to the optimum – nobody is using illegal drugs, nobody is selling their body –we're not going to get there any time soon," Webster said. "So let's minimize the consequence of those behaviors."


A deeper look at Safe Streets

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