Streetwise prevention

Editorial Notebook

August 18, 2007|By Ann LoLordo

It's Wednesday night, and about a dozen members of the McElderry Park Community Association are meeting at the organization's refurbished North Montford Avenue center. It's business as usual as the group votes in additional board members and then turns its attention to the night's agenda: the upcoming Amazing Port Street celebration, recruiting volunteers to organize a book club for local kids, cleaning the alleys of trash and promoting next month's fundraising fish fry.

A block away, past a check-cashing store, the tax man, a laundromat, clothes boutique and ice cream parlor, three police cars with lights flashing are parked at Monument and North Milton. A pair of young, black men sit on the curb with their hands cuffed behind them. Nearby residents, gathered in the summer night on their steps, seem oblivious to the arrest in progress, while around the corner, the little store beside Evans Temple Memorial Church of God sells snow cones, pickles and doughnuts from a sidewalk stand.

McElderry Park, a neighborhood of two-story rowhouses in southeast Baltimore, where renters outnumber homeowners 2 to 1 and crime has some police patrolling on foot, is the site of the city's latest experiment in curbing gun violence. It's not a traditional crime-fighting strategy - but traditional policing alone hasn't stopped the shootings and murders that are shattering families and stigmatizing Baltimore.

The strategy is more akin to that of an infectious-disease specialist looking for the source of an outbreak. Operation Safe Streets is responding to a public health crisis - the single greatest killer of African-American men, ages 15-34, in Baltimore isn't cancer or AIDs or heart disease. It's homicide.

A team of five men, African-Americans, is canvassing the McElderry Park neighborhood in search of those at risk of being killed or killing. They are a new breed of public health worker practicing a specialized brand of preventive care. They are walking the streets, introducing themselves to community leaders, attending neighborhood meetings, hosting street barbecues and leading stop-the-killing marches. And they are hanging on street corners as darkness falls, striking up conversations with their hoped-for clientele - teens and young men, individuals or gangs, who favor a gun to settle a score.

Introductions have to develop into a connection strong enough that an 18-year-old who relies on a gun to make his name, ensure his respect, protect his way of life, would care enough about something other than himself - something greater than himself - to eschew violence. That's a tricky proposition that would make the least cynical among us scoff. But this intervention has been field tested in Chicago, notorious for its gangs, and has shown double-digit reductions in gun violence in neighborhoods where it's practiced.

That the Baltimore caseworkers find themselves in McElderry Park is no coincidence. Across the Southeastern Police District, shootings have increased 39 percent over last year and police commanders shared with city health department officials, who oversee the safe streets project, troubling signs in McElderry Park and elsewhere.

In one police post within the neighborhood, there were five homicides last year and six shootings, nearly identical to statistics from the year before. So far this year: two homicides and eight shootings.

Leon Faruq, eastside director of Operation Safe Streets, and his team understand the objective: stop the violence. It sounds amorphous, overwhelming, cliched even. But the caseworkers know the territory; some have had their own troubles with the law. And while they may not know the corner guys immediately, they may know guys who know them - and that connection, whether through family, neighborhood or past association, gives them "reach," as they like to say, and eventually credibility and respect.

"The whole thing is about relationships, to have good working relationships," says team member Jerrod Lewis, 35.

Theirs is outreach work of the most basic kind. They know what's at stake, the lives of another generation of black men and the vitality of their city.

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