Gangs and the public health

January 09, 2007

Gang-related violence has become the preoccupation of law enforcement officials across Maryland in the last year or two - and Baltimore, surprisingly, may serve as a model for how to effectively combat the scourge of gangs.

Taking its lead from other cities, the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is advocating a community-based, public health approach to reducing gang violence. Intervention and mediation are the keys, not solely tougher enforcement. But it will require a change in attitude and policy here for communities and police alike.

It's been done successfully in Chicago; gang-related shootings and murders have dropped significantly in seven neighborhoods where intervention strategies were adopted.

Like Chicago's CeaseFire program, Baltimore's plan would start in a few select neighborhoods. Coordinated by the Health Department, it would require community support and rely on improved police data to identify suspect areas and gangs. Police also would ramp up enforcement of gun crimes to take advantage of mandatory prison sentences.

But for this to work, every participating group has to be working toward the same end. Citizens reluctant to assist police won't help the cause. Police officers doubtful that community leaders can make a difference need an attitude check. Prosecutors second-guessing police will thwart any progress.

In Chicago, communities were essential to getting out the anti-violence message every time a gang-related shooting occurred. CeaseFire workers focused on deterring gang-bangers from settling scores with violence, not looking for gang members to necessarily renounce their colors.

Baltimore, with its estimated 1,300 gang members (not counting juveniles), comes late to this approach, which was first used by Boston in the 1990s and led to a reduction in its homicide rate then. But with federal funding available for gang initiatives and coordination by federal and local law enforcement, prosecutors and family advocates, the city and its suburbs can begin to attack the insidious impact of gang violence on communities - and see results.

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