By the end of 2012, there were 588 homicides and nonfatal shootings in Baltimore. And things are looking even worse for this year. Right now, there are 43 more shootings than there were at this point last year. Those figures give chills to epidemiologists, city officials, police officers, and anyone paying attention.
James Timpson of Safe Streets has been working on the issue of gun violence for years. Contrary to what some may assume, he says, it isn’t all gang related, but could be “a simple argument over a can of soda or you owe me a dollar.”
But what to do about it?
Timpson looks at gun violence through a different lens. Rather than focusing on illegal guns or getting the police involved, he’s part of a team, Safe Streets, that focuses on the abnormal behavior behind picking up a gun to solve a dispute.
They hire ex-offenders who are from the target neighborhood - who used to run the neighborhood streets - to go out in the night and tap into the hottest spots, with the greatest conflicts. Timpson says the “credible messengers” are a crucial part of the program “because they know exactly what we’re looking for, who we’re trying to target. They know how to talk to them, how to target them. And they respond well to the guys.”
Safe Streets, based in the city Health Department, treats gun violence like an epidemic – a behavior that spreads.
Gary Slutkin, the founder and executive director of Cure Violence – the Chicago model for Safe Streets and other programs like it, says the health department is the logical place for the program.
“It’s the health sector that is charged for doing everything that relates to improving our behaviors for a healthier life. Outreach and behavior change is the expertise of the health departments.”
Think about a public health initiative that hires sex workers to do outreach to other sex workers, teaching them the importance of condoms, he says. Peer to peer outreach work makes sense for gun violence, too.
It might seem like an understatement to say gun violence is unhealthy, but that’s the basis for Slutkin’s theory and it has led to Safe Streets-style operations in eight foreign countries. And in fifteen states in the U-S, there are fifty sites, four in Baltimore (Mondawmin, Cherry Hill, McElderry Park, and Park Heights).
As public health workers, Timpson says he and his crew focus on teaching and urging one message: “We going to solve this problem without violence.” But what about the linkage between drugs and guns? Timpson says they have to stay on point, “The guy on the corner selling drugs? We just want to make sure he doesn’t pick that gun up.” The idea is to get people to put down their guns first, then tackle the other problems. Timpson says you can’t accomplish anything when people pick up a gun every time there’s a problem.
For the most part, this approach is helping. Last year, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released a study that showed overall success. In McElderry Park, a neighborhood with a Safe Streets division, youth were four times more likely to have the lowest level of support for using violence in comparison to a neighborhood that didn’t have a Safe Streets site. And across all sites, estimates show that the program was associated with 5.4 fewer homicide incidents and 34.6 fewer nonfatal shooting incidents during the study period.
The study was a motivation for the Park Heights site that opened earlier this year, funded by the Center for Disease Control and Department of Justice and implemented by Johns Hopkins.
But the program is not without its critics. And perhaps the most important ones come from the communities themselves. Nependa Fisher, 24, stood in front of a Safe Streets sticker in Madison Eastend, not far from McElderry Park – one of the many ways the program tries to spread its name, along with t-shirts and community picnics. “They not doing nothing but recruiting people to sell drugs for real,” she complained. “They not recruiting them to ‘oh, let’s take y’all to the PAL center or let’s take ya’ll skating.’ They’re recruiting. They can say ‘What do we want? Safe Streets!’ But you out here selling drugs, I mean it just don’t make no sense.”
Lori Tuscano, the Health Department’s director of Safe Streets, challenged that notion. “They may be guys hanging out on the corner with higher risk individuals and that’s really what they should be doing,” she said. But she says she knows the program needs the public’s buy-in - it’s something they’re constantly working on by hosting monthly community picnics and handing out t-shirts on their numerous walks.
As for city’s buy-in, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake showed her support of the program at the U-S conference of mayors earlier this summer, noting that it’s a key strategy to reducing shootings and homicides.
Baltimore has covered 20% of the $8 million cost of the program since its inception in 2007 while the U.S. Department of Justice, the state, and private foundations have come up with the rest of the money.
Gardnell Carter has been with McElderry Park’s Safe Streets site since the beginning of the program. He says the neighborhood was like a mini Las Vegas--always active--and it took a while for the program to establish roots.
But, it’s understandable that the community would be hesitant, he says.
“It’s been program after program that came here. Some have stayed, some have gone. So, the residents have mixed feelings, so they do their homework on you as you trying to build rapport and relationships with them.”
Carter says the fact that the Safe Streets workers live in the neighborhood they work in made those relationships stronger.
James Timpson adds that these public health workers and ex-offenders “feel like they’ve helped put the community where it is now and now they feel responsible to fix it.”
Carter says the job never really ends for Baltimore’s twenty-four public health workers who wear the orange Safe Streets t-shirts in the middle of the night. They take calls after their shifts end and they think about how to organize their strategies off the clock, too. They “take a lot of things in this job very personal because we know where we once were.”
On Friday morning, McElderry Park saw its first shootings in 71 days – one homicide and one non-fatal shooting. Carter says he knew both the men and that this is a “senseless tragedy for the community”.