Neighborhoods can keep hope alive

Faith: Neighborhood leaders struggle for a foothold even as the murder rate climbs.

May 30, 2000

AS BALTIMORE mourns the loss of another promising life -- dental student Christian Ludwig -- some fall prey to despair.

So many guns, so much illegal drug use and child neglect: How, they ask, can anyone believe the murder rate will subside?

Operation Safe Neighborhoods believes. Operation Safe Neighborhoods is Baltimore, its church leaders, probation officers, parents, police officers and academics who insist that even the criminals can be recruited to change the culture of violence.

Law enforcement, of course, is the main force in a city that bids now to push its 300-per-year murder rate well above that figure in the year 2000. Some 122 persons had been murdered in the city before the Memorial Day weekend.

But Operation Safe Neighborhoods offers a critical and complimentary partnership to the police -- a partnership the police wisely welcomed.

The program relies on the conviction that people can overcome even wanton killing, endemic child abuse and drug addiction. It asserts that a significant number of offenders have had no opportunity to think differently about their lives. It proposes to offer that missing link.

Brief and fragmentary narratives from the Park Heights neighborhood are encouraging. The program started there and hopes to move into every city neighborhood. People hear less gunfire. Some of the chronic criminals -- well known to safe neighborhood operatives -- have volunteered for drug treatment, job training, skills development.

People who have been "disconnected from the life-recovery ramp or the hope on-ramp are getting re-connected," says one of the program organizers, Selwyn Ray.

Of 45 offenders "called in" to hear how safe neighborhoods would proceed, 13 started immediately looking for jobs with help promised by the program; seven volunteered for drug treatment -- and all of them found a treatment slot. A number asked for spiritual help from local ministers.

The program first promised offenders that violence would be met with the urgency once reserved for cop killers. Some arrested persons have been held recently on $500,000 bail -- unheard of before. Some offenders holding small amounts of dope have gone to jail for a dozen years. The word gets out quickly on the street.

One of Mr. Ray's community action idols in Baltimore predicted he would succeed if political and law enforcement authorities -- the power centers -- work as closely as people in the community are working now, finally.

Operation Safe Neighborhood is a hands-on, high-touch operation that deserves broad community support.

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