Safe Streets in America’s ‘Most Dangerous City’

Baltimore is experiencing a slight dip in homicides, thanks in part to Safe Streets, a mediation-based program to end violence. But law-and-order Republicans are pushing back against community-based solutions

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TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland. Baltimore is experiencing a slight dip in homicides, some say due to community-based programs like Safe Streets. But a Republican Governor is preparing to block funding during a critical time. Since the beginning of Maryland’s annual legislative session, Republican Governor Larry Hogan has made it clear that policing and prisons are a top priority.

LARRY HOGAN: This year, let’s crack down on those violent criminals who use guns to commit crimes, by passing tougher minimum sentences.

TAYA GRAHAM: Like the similar crackdown touted by the Trump administration, their argument is built around fear.

S. SHELLENBERGER: This is the part where we’re seeing 353 homicides in Baltimore City. We’re seeing homicides all across this state.

TAYA GRAHAM: In fact, Baltimore recently was deemed the most dangerous city in America by USA Today. But amid all the histrionics, another voice has emerged.

SPEAKER: It’s a good first initial step at looking at criminal justice from a different vantage point.

TAYA GRAHAM: Activists who say more policing is not the answer, and believe community-based models are more effective.

SPEAKER: People deciding that they can just solve their problems in a mediation type of way.

TAYA GRAHAM: In part, they point to a recent drop in homicides in the city. Even the mayor attributes to community based efforts.

CATHERINE PUGH: Well also coupled with that was the Ceasefire, a lot of community engagement, and I think he would say the same thing. It really is all of us.

TAYA GRAHAM: Which is why supporters of a program called Safe Streets were in Annapolis today to support a bill that would increase funding and expand the program.

SPEAKER: We have incredible messengers to work in the neighborhood, and they come from this neighborhood.

TAYA GRAHAM: Arguing that the model for curing violence that relies upon mediation not prison is the most effective way to combat violence. Delegate Talmadge Branch, whose grandson was murdered last year made an emotional plea for funding 10 new branches for $3 million dollars per year.

TALMADGE BRANCH: Any governor, any mayor, any county exec, any leader, would want to … Knowing that your city is rated number one in the country, why you would want to oppose a bill?

TAYA GRAHAM: So did Safe Streets worker Corey Winfield, who described a successful mediation that may have prevented a murder.

COREY WINFIELD: I takes him to the side and I ask him. I said, “Man, a cell phone? You killed somebody over a cell phone? You’re going to lose your life over a cell phone? Over your friends/ lives?” He said, “Man, it’s the principle.” I said, “Do you know what you want?” And I agree with that 100 percent, it’s the principle. I said, “Let me ask you this, though.” I said, “Your daughter is about what? A year? 18 months old?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Now listen, when she’s going to the singing prom, and you call home from prison, and she tells you, ‘Dad, I look so pretty, I wish you can be here.’ I want you to tell her the same BS you just told me. ‘I wish I was, but it’s the principle.'”

TAYA GRAHAM: But Branch says despite widespread support, Maryland’s get-tough governor doesn’t support the bill.

STEPHEN JANIS: The administration said they oppose this bill?

TALMADGE BRANCH: Yeah, I received a … They often offer letters of whether you support or you don’t support, and the Department of Budget and Management sent a letter opposing the bill, saying that it would be placing a mandate on the budget. But right now, I think given the fact that we’ve been identified by USA Today as the worse city in the country, that we should be putting lives before the budget at this point.

TAYA GRAHAM: In a different hearing room, there was another front in the same battle for alternative paths to public safety. There, Delegate Bilal Ali was proposing a law to charge officers with a felony for intentionally turning off body cameras.

BILAL ALI: Well, for those officers who do, or choose or elect to do something that’s related to altering material evidence, then it should be high consequences. It shouldn’t be a misdemeanor where you’re suspended with pay.

TAYA GRAHAM: A proposal the city’s police union president Gene Ryan opposes.

GENE RYAN: You’re giving stiffer penalties to police officers, then you are criminals. I mean 10 years, $100,000 fine? That’s ridiculous.

TAYA GRAHAM: But Ali says his idea is part of a broader plan – to lessen the emphasis on policing.

BILAL ALI: We have to understand that if we’re going to have a democracy or we’re going to have a government that’s responsive to the people that they’re supposed to serve, then this information should be forthcoming.

TAYA GRAHAM: Still, Davon Love of the activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle says the faster the political establishment recognizes the power of community intervention and real community-based solutions like Safe Streets, the sooner cities like Baltimore can heal.

DAYVON LOVE: The evidence is so definitive that community-based programs work to address violence that it doesn’t surprise me that support for things like Safe Streets and the Ceasefire are things that’s becoming more popular, because it works.

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland.