Saving lives

February 09, 2005

THE TEENAGERS under Dr. Peter L. Beilenson's care were in danger of becoming another Baltimore statistic, another kid shot or killed in a city with a climbing murder rate. But the city health commissioner didn't lose one of the 132 teenagers enrolled in the Operation Safe Kids initiative last year. And Baltimore's juvenile homicide rate reflects that encouraging news.

The purpose of Operation Safe Kids can be summed up in a phrase: intensive intervention in the lives of troubled teens with supervision to match.

The program matters because the city is battling a stubbornly aggressive murder rate, a quota of killing that claimed 278 lives in 2004 and 38 so far this year. While murders overall are increasing, fewer teens ages 14 to 17 were killed in 2004 compared with 2003, a decline of 29 to 20, according to records kept by the Health Department. And Operation Safe Kids offers an insight into what's required to prolong the lives of some of the city's most vulnerable youths.

In 2001, Mayor Martin O'Malley ordered his department heads "to identify the 100 kids most likely to kill or be killed" in three high-crime areas. That's the basic criterion used by Operation Safe Kids when it began in 2002 -- a year that saw 16 juveniles killed in the first six months of the year, almost twice the number from the first six months of 2001.

What made the teens likely to wind up dead or accused of murder? Multiple arrests as a juvenile, involvement in the drug trade and homes in areas marked by high juvenile violence. Operation Safe Kids relies on a concerted effort by city and state agencies to ensure that teens and their families get the support they need to keep them away from crime. And there are consequences for teens who slip up.

Drug treatment (about 25 percent of the program's teens are enrolled), credits toward a high school diploma, housing aid, mental health counseling, a summer job -- these are all made available. The success of the program may be measured in GEDs earned, jobs worked, treatment regimens completed. But that only one teenager in Operation Safe Kids was killed during the first three years of the program -- that's success.

It took more than police and prosecutors to have an impact on the city's juvenile homicides. A similar approach should be taken in curbing adult murders, often the result of drug violence.

As Baltimore police focus on three high-murder areas, city and state agencies should join the effort. The acting police commissioner, Leonard D. Hamm, has gotten state probation officials to place agents in some police districts to target repeat violent offenders. That's a start. Other public agencies should follow. That kind of intervention won't save would-be murderers from themselves, but it may reduce the opportunity for crime and encourage law-abiding citizens to help in the fight.

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