Unorthodox approach to Baltimore violence yields unorthodox news coverage

BALTIMORE - Some of the same criminals who ruled the streets now spread a different message.

Reformed, these now outreach workers use their "street cred" to interrupt conflict, change social norms and re-educate the high risk youth teaching them to literally stop shooting and start living.

It's called Safe Streets, and it's run by the Baltimore City Health Department. Adapted from Chicago's Cure Violence Campaign, Baltimore replicated the effort in 2007 to treat gun violence as a disease in targeted neighborhoods.

See also: Street cred used to disrupt violence

"We've seen it work, and when it does work it works very dramatically," Dr. Daniel Webster, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Police and Research, said.

Webster published a study a couple of years ago saying the statistics prove this method works. He says even in compiling recent data, there is "consistent evidence" the program led to large reductions in gun violence.

Looking at the newest data from the Baltimore City Health Department of the total shooting incidents where Safe Streets operates, it is clear Cherry Hill saw the steepest decline from 12 shootings when it was launched in 2008 to four so far this year.

McElderry Park's group, founded in 2007, went from 10 shootings in 2008 to five last year and six so far this year.

The Mondawmin site launched in 2012 and has kept shooting incidents to four so far this year in comparison to seven in 2008.

Park Heights is the baby of the group and the focus of our main story (Thursday, Nov 21 at 11 p.m.); it launched February 2013 and has had four shootings down from seven in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

"It's not an easy thing to do to really get the right people, to oversee them and manage this right, but when done appropriately, you get significant reductions in gun violence," Webster said.

But, it is not always a success. Early Safe Street chapters in the Union Square, Elwood Park and Madison-Eastend neighborhoods folded.

Implementation can prove challenging and the risks are arguably as high as the reward.

"You've asked them to work in some of the most dangerous parts of the city at the most dangerous times and to seek out the most dangerous people in those situations... and to try to keep them from shooting anyone," Webster said.

Embedded with Safe Streets

We wanted to go beyond the press releases and staged events to see up-close how the program works.

It took months to get the Baltimore City Health Department to let us spend an evening with its operation in Park Heights.

Safe Streets has no working relationship with the police department and conducts its mediations and counseling within the code of the streets – streets we were told at least three times by outreach workers we normally would have no business walking at night.

There were obvious safety concerns with gathering the elements for this story, but there were unique parameters as well.

First, we agreed not to broadcast specifics of any mediation.

Again, there is zero relationship or information sharing with the police department on the part of these outreach workers and violence interrupters. None of what we caught on camera was to jeopardize that. Things like location, certain identities or accusations of crimes were to remain off the record.

We also had to use a different tool.

Safe Streets workers thought a large and traditional news camera would disrupt the process, so we used a smaller camera, powerful in low light.

We also agreed that if at any point during the evening, the camera became an issue and an outreach worker told us to turn it off... we would.

Journalistically, it was an unorthodox method of gathering elements, but we are also telling the story of an unorthodox approach to violent crime.

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