The Real Baltimore: Can Expanding ‘Safe Streets’ Halt Baltimore’s Violence?
Advocates say programs that use the ‘cure violence’ approach like Safe Streets are effective, and say more resources could be the solution to Baltimore’s rising homicide rate
Stephen Janis: Violence. It continues to consume Baltimore. After a record breaking year in homicides in 2016, the number has climbed even higher to date, and with the mayhem comes hand wringing over what to do about it. In the past, the answer has been aggressive policing. Tactics like zero tolerance, mass arrests, and specialized units have been touted by politicians and residents alike, but it hasn’t worked. In fact, despite spending billions on law enforcement, crime continues to rise, which is why some have advocated for a different approach. In Baltimore, that has meant in part something called Safe Streets, which aims to cure violence, a program that uses mediation to temper conflicts which often precipitate shootings in Baltimore. But does it work, and is it the best solution for the intractable crime, which continues to plague the city?
As the first part of our series of panelists to answer this question, we’ve assembled a group of people highly qualified to discuss it. Dr. Daniel Webster is a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and has worked in studying Safe Streets extensively. Nicole Mundell is the executive director of Out For Justice, an ex-offender member led non-profit organization. Eddie Conway is the executive editor for The Real News Network and a former Black Panther. Before we get started, we have a package from our reporter, Taya Graham.
Taya Graham: It was the type of pushback that rarely occurs at City Hall, the Baltimore City Council voting unanimously to cut money from the mayor’s budget as part of the ongoing battle over funding priorities. At the center of the conflict, Safe Streets. It’s a program which uses community members to mediate disputes, an alternative to policing based on a strategy called Cure Violence.
Jack Young: No, we’re not armed with weapons. We’re armed with knowledge. We offer street knowledge. We have trainers, and also the trainers cultivated what we already knew and learned, what I was groomed for in the street.
Taya Graham: But the program has not been without controversy. Several mediators have been arrested in high profile, albeit controversial, raids. There is much debate over how to measure the effectiveness of the program. In the end, the council prevailed, and funding to Safe Streets, nearly $1.6 million, was restored. City Council President, Jack Young, says it’s a small victory in looking for alternative ways to heal one of the most deadly cities in America.
Jack Young: We’re going to come up with some strategic cuts so that we can fund these programs, and that’s what she done, and I’m happy about that.
Stephen Janis: Dr. Webster, I want to start with you.
Daniel Webster: Okay.
Stephen Janis: Obviously, we’ve had record violence this year. You’ve looked at Safe Streets in a quantitative way, tried to measure whether it’s effective in the places where it has been implemented. What does your research show?
Daniel Webster: Baltimore started this program, Safe Streets, beginning in 2007. I was involved in the very early stages in some of the consultations with the city and if to do it, where to do it, how to do it, and then to evaluate its impact. I’ve done a few reports issued at different time intervals. The program has operated now probably in about seven or eight neighborhoods at any given time over that decade. Our most recent analysis that looks at data through 2016, when we average the affects over all those different sites, our estimate is about a 27% reduction in shootings compared to similar areas that did not have the program. That’s very encouraging. The flip side to that is that there has not been as consistent impacts. There have been several sites that were only implementing for a short time. They were not having impact, and often they then lost their contract from the Health Department.
I think it is a very, very promising program. I have to say I’ve learned a lot from it, from the outreach staff and the violence interrupters, but I think it’s no magic potion. They are trying to do really incredibly difficult things in some of the most challenging areas with some of the most challenging people. I feel like to date over that decade that aside from the problem that we’ve only tried this in a really small number of areas, I don’t think it’s received the full support to be fully effective.
Stephen Janis: In terms of it’s important from the city, in terms of funding? What is the issue?
Daniel Webster: I think of support certainly on the funding side, but also moral support.
Stephen Janis: From politicians?
Daniel Webster: Yes, from our leaders, from communities across the board. These individuals are doing very dangerous work for very low pay. They’re very committed individuals. They are not recognized for what they’re doing and the impact that they’re having. I feel that I would love for the workers to get paid more. I would love for there to be more financial resources so there are more programs. But I also think they deserve the respect of what they are doing. That matters not only to those people doing the work, I think that matters in what does it say about our city? Are we going to reward and recognize peacemakers, people who are going out and trying to make a difference? I think that is very motivating. I know it matters to me if I get some recognition if I’m doing a good job or not. I think that’s the case for anybody. Right now, I feel like the workers have not received the recognition and support that they need to do a really incredibly hard task.
Stephen Janis: Nicole, you know people who have worked in Safe Streets. Do they feel like they’re getting respect? Is there respect for this program in the communities and respect for it? Do they feel like they’re getting the support from the city that they need to do their jobs?
Nicole Mundell: I think they are getting respect from the people in the communities. When you are someone who has committed to reforming your life after incarceration and you are consistent in that, and the people in your communities that you had once walked that very narrow path with, and they now see that you are rebuilding, you’re consistent, you want change, and you want to figure out a way to resolve problems, then yes, they have respect in their community. I think we need more of that. Considering the stigma that’s attached to ex-felons every day, you need to reinforce that good behavior.
Stephen Janis: Eddie, you knew the guy, one of the people that was [inaudible 00:07:23]. Just to back up a little bit so people understand, what was the basic concept that he was working with? People go out in the community, they mediate. How was that supposed to work from what you understand?
Eddie Conway: I think he developed the concept. Obviously, it developed up in Illinois.
Stephen Janis: His name was?
Eddie Conway: Leon Faruq.
Stephen Janis: Okay.
Eddie Conway: Right. I think he developed the concept just by looking at the model we used inside the prison system itself. Guys that knew people in different organization and that had a reputation and a standing on the yard could intervene and resolve conflicts without violence, and make deals and agreements among people. Then because of their reputation, they could stand behind those agreements and make sure there wasn’t any violation of those agreements. I think he brought that outside, looking at the program that they had up in Illinois, I believe the School of Social Work, the Violence Interrupters program. I think they had duplicated one down in New Orleans. He said in the community, if people could see people that were respected and recognized, and young people that is, they would listen more likely to those people in terms of resolving problems, especially if people had the experience of saying, “Look, I spent 10 years, I spent 20 years in prison. You don’t want to go there for something as trivial as this.” I think it was very effective, but obviously, as Dr. Webster said, that in some places it took roots and in other places it didn’t.
Stephen Janis: Yeah. This is from the Health Department which says there are what, about 870 mediated conflicts?
Eddie Conway: Yeah, just in 2016, 876 interactions, mediations that it was determined that maybe 80% of them would have led to gun violence. Also, three out of the four sites that Safe Streets was operating in in 2016 had no gun violence at all that led to fatalities, and in one particular site on the East Side, they hadn’t had any fatalities at all. Like Dr. Webster said, it led to in those sites a 27% reduction in crime in those areas.
Stephen Janis: Dr. Webster, given these statistics and given that we’re in this crisis, why hasn’t the city and other agencies stepped in and said, “Let’s fund Safe Streets. Let’s give them $20 million. Let’s give them $10 million.” Forget about, as we know, the mayor said $1.6 million after the council pushed back. The program has basically been cut. If you say it’s successful, and Eddie’s got these statistics as you indicate, and we have a real crisis, why do you think there’s such a reluctance to fund it?
Daniel Webster: I think part of it has to do with its history in how it came to Baltimore. It came through the Health Department. I think a lot of people don’t really understand that probably 85% of the funding for the Baltimore City Health Department comes through grants, through federal and state grants and a few private grants. Just wrap your head around that. If you are a health commissioner and you are responsible for the health and safety of an entire city, and you have to go around begging, and pleading, and hoping you get grants to keep the city healthy and safe, that’s very different from how we think about public safety on the law enforcement side. Yes, the Baltimore Police Department does get grants, but our history has been we have invested in that because our population needs the protection from law enforcement. I think part of it comes from this was a public health model from an agency that is almost entirely grant-funded.
Look, since its inception, I’m not talking about Mayor Pugh, I’m talking about since its inception, very little city money has actually been invested. Mayor Dickson, I believe, was the exception to put some real money on the table for that.
Stephen Janis: But the subsequent administration, Mayor Blake, did not.
Daniel Webster: She did not. It was mostly grant-funded.
Stephen Janis: Right.
Daniel Webster: I think part of it has to do with its history of how it got here. I feel very good about a lot of its successes that we’ve been talking about. What I feel disappointed in is that over that 10-year span that there wasn’t a mobilization for public support that this should be a city-funded operation, this should be part of a public safety strategy that warrants public investment just as we invest in all kinds of things relevant to our safety, traffic safety, other safety.
Stephen Janis: Could there be a multiplier effect with that kind of thing if, for example, it was funded with $20 million or $30 million? Could that, from what data you’re looking at, actually increase the efficacy of the program in terms of extra funding?
Daniel Webster: I do think it would be more effective with more funding. There’s two things about effectiveness. One is can you go from 27% to 57% reduction or something like that? But I think more importantly is how broadly you can apply this program.
Stephen Janis: That’s the question, yeah.
Daniel Webster: I feel like our leaders should be answering that question is, how can you take something that started as a grant-funded demonstration project? This is a new way to approach violence. Let’s see if it works. Okay, now we have evidence. It works. The whole idea of a demonstration project though is to then say, is this where we can put public dollars with good return? I think the answer is yes. The question then is, how do you ramp that up? How do you get citywide effects? I think part of that is it’s always going to have neighborhood roots, but you’ve got to make a citywide effort. It’s like a citywide statement and a communications strategy around it. It’s a campaign. I think Eddie mentioned New Orleans, for example. They started something called NOLA for Life. The Cure Violence was one, not the only strategy, but it clearly was a broad mobilization. New Orleans recognized homicides and shootings are a huge problem for our city. We are going to invest in this as a city rather than think about can we find a little grant to get this little neighborhood protected.
That’s my own hope and vision is that we begin to think about Safe Streets not as let’s do a little demonstration project or get one more neighborhood. I think we need to think about how can we do violence prevention citywide, change cultures, change opportunities, recognize peacemakers and what they’re doing. Then you start to change, I think, a culture of violence to non-violence.
Stephen Janis: Nicole, one of the big things in the debate with the council was taking money out of the police department. For years, it’s been not something you even talk about. This year was the first time there was even any debate. Do you think the community perceives that this is something that has to be done? For example, if the council said, “Let’s put $100 million in Safe Streets rather than $100 in the police department,” is the community ready for that, because a lot of council people I talked to said, people are like, “Don’t cut the police department.” What are you seeing from the people in the community? What do you think?
Nicole Mundell: It depends on what community members you’re talking to. If you’re talking about the community who is most impacted by violence, then they would say, “This is a model that works. Let’s de-invest, take some money out of the police budget and invest in people that can actually prevent crime, could negotiate problems, can figure out ways for communities to stay safe.” When you think about other communities who may get some spurts of violence here and there, they want more police protection. But at the end of the day, what we have been doing in the police department thus far from my point of view and the people who I’m connected with the most has not been working. They are open to new opportunities.
The Safe Streets model is something that they can trust. These are people that they know, that they have lived with, they have lived beside, who they went to school with, who they saw grow up, and so they are most likely to listen, to negotiate, to work with these individuals rather than a police officer who they’ve never saw before, don’t live in their community. I think it depends on what community you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the most impacted folks, they want a model like Safe Streets. They can trust a model like Safe Streets. If you’re talking about a community that they get some spurts of violence here and there, their cars get broken into, things like that, they want more law enforcement.
Stephen Janis: Eddie, what do you think? We’ve reached a different debate about defunding policing. Is that the best way to address this issue with violence right now, to defund policing and to put it in something else? What’s your take on that idea?
Eddie Conway: I don’t even see it as the issue of defunding the police. This year, they added an additional $18 million to their overtime salaries …
Stephen Janis: Yes, that’s true.
Eddie Conway: … which was $60 million.
Stephen Janis: Yeah, they had a record-
Eddie Conway: This is overtime.
Stephen Janis: That’s true.
Eddie Conway: It’s not a question of defunding. It’s a question of putting some of that funds into programs that’s successful, but it’s got to be a holistic approach. It can’t just be that we have violence interrupters out on the community streets and they’re interacting with people. You have to go beyond that and look at what’s the source of this violence. The source of this violence is unemployment. The source of this violence is oppression. The source of this violence is the way institutions deal with different races and different communities on an economic level. You need jobs in the community. It’s not being addressed. Some of that money needs to be addressed in terms of employing people. People don’t want to be out on street corners, and fighting over territory, and risking their lives for $500 or $600 a week to get shot or to go to jail. People want jobs, but they don’t want jobs, and this is a problem, for $8.75 where they have to end up getting some sort of a handout at the end of their pay period.
Nicole Mundell: Or another job.
Eddie Conway: They want at least the cost of living kind of thing. I’m just throwing a number out there. Take $8 million of that $18 million overtime. That’s not defunding the police.
Stephen Janis: That’s a good point.
Eddie Conway: That’s not increasing the occupation, if I could use that term.
Stephen Janis: Yeah. Dr. Webster, just to drill down the specifics of what it would mean to take this program further, you mentioned something. When I was a reporter, I covered the murder of a Safe Streets worker, which wasn’t really talked about too much. Is it [inaudible 00:19:38] this sustainable in the sense that people can be guaranteed some sort of safety? Isn’t it dangerous to put people in this situation and low pay? If you expand this, are you expanding the risk for the people who do these jobs? Do you feel like there’s adequate safety for the people who take the risk to go out into the neighborhoods?
Daniel Webster: There was a Safe Streets worker who was murdered. My understanding of that situation is that that had actually nothing to do with his direct employment. That had to do with some history. All the workers, almost all of them have some history. I headed the city’s Homicide Review Commission for 2015 and really was able to examine a lot of the specifics around each of these incidents. It’s stunning how consistent the theme of somebody’s getting even for something, right?
Stephen Janis: Right.
Daniel Webster: It could’ve been something that happened a day ago or five years ago.
Stephen Janis: You’re talking about motives for murder.
Daniel Webster: I’m talking about motives, yes, I am.
Stephen Janis: All right.
Daniel Webster: I think to get more directly to your question …
Stephen Janis: Sure, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Daniel Webster: … about is this a safe occupation to do, I think people understand very well the risks they’re taking. I think the program’s been in place for a decade and largely been a very safe endeavor for the workers. They do get training about how to understand the boundaries of what you can and cannot do. The reason they are hired is because they have very good street instincts. They know people, they know situations. Probably the biggest unanswered question for me is how much could you ramp that up.
Stephen Janis: Right, and that is an essential question.
Daniel Webster: People would use these clinical terms of implementation and fidelity or something like that, fidelity to a program model. When I talk to the workers themselves and say, “Wow, I’m seeing more effects here and there,” they attribute it to these more intangible things of these people really got heart. This is their passion, their life. These people here, it’s a paycheck to the next thing or something. There’s a lot that goes into getting the right people to do a very special task, very dangerous task. I think that’s a question that should be examined.
Stephen Janis: How much are they paid on average?
Daniel Webster: I should know this off the top of my head, but I’m afraid I don’t. I think it is roughly in the ballpark of about $30,000 a year.
Stephen Janis: Okay. The average police officer makes $70,000, $80,000 at least, and not including overtime, as Eddie pointed out.
Daniel Webster: They went for a very long time with no increase, annual increase. Almost everybody, if you’re employed, you’re doing your job and everything, you get some increase the next year. They went for many, many years with no increases at all.
Stephen Janis: What does that say about a program, if we want to implement it, that they’re paying people $30,000 to risk their lives, but police officers can not only get $70,000 or $80,000 to work inside a building, but also collect overtime? Does that mean that this program, that there’s a real serious commitment to this?
Nicole Mundell: Yeah, I think it speaks to the level of respect that folks have for this program. I think it speaks to what folks think are more important in this city, and the folks who can work to get that funding for Safe Streets. Yeah, people see that. People see that the police officer makes this much with a gun, health insurance.
Stephen Janis: Retirement, pensions.
Nicole Mundell: Retirement. But you have these peace officers that have to go inside these communities every day and risk somebody not forgetting five years ago that I said something that you didn’t like, and not understanding where that person is mentally right now. He just doesn’t care about me or anybody else. You’ve got these people taking these really extreme risks and getting $30,000 a year with probably no benefits.
Daniel Webster: They get some benefits, but it’s not the same kind of package as a police offer.
Nicole Mundell: Right. Like Eddie said, there’s a certain level of wraparound services that are also needed for these individuals. They don’t just need employment. They need access to affordable housing. They need assistance with childcare. They still deal with issues of reintegrating back into the community in addition to having a job. You don’t have funding to provide those wraparound services for these individuals.
Stephen Janis: Okay, I want to go around quickly. Eddie, quickly, you talked about structural issues, structural poverty. Are programs like this just basically diverting from the real issue and not worth implementing, or is it better to divert resources because there are going to be conflicts, as Dr. Webster has said? Is it just better to just put the money into something that would be more proactive rather than this? What do you think?
Eddie Conway: The statistics show that this works, and it’s accepted in communities. In some cases, as Dr. Webster said, it has taken root, in other cases it hasn’t. But in those areas that it takes roots, it should have wraparound services. It should be enhanced as much as possible. I recognize what you were saying about the individuals, their standings and their commitments in terms of whether or not you can duplicate this program and expand it, but unfortunately, there’s a tremendous amount of people going in the prison system and coming out of the prison system changed for the most part that can provide those services, that are there. It’s not the lack of individuals in terms of being able to expand the program. But at the same time, it speaks to America’s, the value of black lives because most of these cases, New Orleans, Illinois, here, you’re talking black lives. You’re talking black lives falling, and you’re talking black lives intervening. The value there is always the lowest possible pay, and the money there is always the lowest possible pay.
I mentioned it to you the other day, and it’s also a conflict of interests to have this program be successful in terms of community policing when I’m buying a house, I’m buying a car, I’m buying a boat, I’m being paid to do that. If you can do that for a third of my paycheck and do it more effectively than I am doing it, then there’s a conflict of interest. Then there’s an attitude toward what you’re doing because you’re taking food off of my table. You’re taking a boat out of the bay that I could have. It might not be conscious or it might be unconscious, but there’s that disconnect there.
Stephen Janis: There’s some hostility there between the police department-
Eddie Conway: There’s that disconnect there. Every time you find that one individual or two individuals that might be deviant from the program …
Stephen Janis: Yes.
Nicole Mundell: [inaudible 00:27:36].
Eddie Conway: … you can paint the whole program as a deviant program, whereas when you look into the police department, you’ll always find deviants.
Stephen Janis: There is some tension there, and I think you’re right. I think there is a lot of people in the police department who’d like to see Safe Streets go away. It is amazing and I think speaks volumes that a program that gets so little funding would be perceived as a threat, but I think there are a lot of people that feel that way, that’s true. Just last question. You talked about New Orleans. You’re talking about other cities. What can Baltimore learn from other cities that implemented these programs that might be useful to realizing a vision of making this program more community-wide? Is there anything we can take away from other cities that you’ve looked at that Baltimore could graft on or use to advance the program?
Daniel Webster: Yeah. I mentioned the importance of the New Orleans approach of a citywide effort that the Cure Violence model was one component of. I think, honestly, that it may be one reason why Safe Streets has been vulnerable in Baltimore. It hasn’t been connected enough to other things. It’s been too separate. I think if you create a program that is integrated and people see as part of an overall strategy, you won’t have to fight as hard every year to try to get a few nickels in your budget.
Stephen Janis: Dr. Webster, Nicole, Eddie, I really appreciate you all having this discussion. Obviously, the city is experiencing record violence, and we need to keep having these discussions in order to come up with a solution so that hopefully we can stop this. This is Stephen Janis. I’m reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. Thank you for joining us.