Worker For Safe Streets A Victim

Role As Witness To Cookout Shooting Raises Issues About Violence-reduction Program

July 29, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

An outreach worker for the Safe Streets program was among 12 people wounded at an East Baltimore cookout Sunday, a development that could cast unwanted attention on a well-regarded group known for mediating conflict out of view of law enforcement.

Steven Bountress, director of operations for the Living Classrooms Foundation, which administers the Safe Streets program, said the unidentified worker suffered multiple gunshot wounds and remained in the hospital Tuesday with injuries that were not considered life-threatening.

Safe Streets, the Baltimore Health Department's replication of Chicago's heralded CeaseFire program, places ex-offenders in the community to mediate disputes and provide outreach to high-risk youths. Workers negotiate truces and sometimes broker side deals between drug dealers in an effort to avoid gun violence.

Started in the McElderry Park neighborhood in 2007, it has been credited with reducing violence in key neighborhoods and gradually expanded to other neighborhoods throughout the city, including the Madison-East End community where a dozen of Sunday's 18 shooting victims were struck in a single incident.

Though often in the middle of disputes and familiar with key players, Safe Streets workers can be successful only if they remain independent of law enforcement, officials say. Now one of those workers is a victim and a witness to a shooting involving major players in what police have called a "drug war."

"If [the outreach workers are] going to have any impact in doing what they're trying to do, which is trying to convince people not to shoot each other, they have to be trusted," said Daniel W. Webster, director of the Center for Prevention of Youth Violence at the Johns Hopkins University. "If the belief is that the Safe Streets workers will go to police with information about stuff that's going on, then nobody will talk to them and there will be absolutely no chance for them to have an impact."

Sunday's cookout was held to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the shooting deaths of two men believed to be connected with a powerful East Baltimore drug organization. But it quickly turned to mayhem when at least one gunman began shooting. A pregnant woman and a 2-year-old girl were among those wounded.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III lamented that officers were not aware of the cookout, which had the potential for violence.

"We are certainly going to Monday-morning-quarterback every aspect of police operations connected to this incident, as we should do," Bealefeld said at a Monday news conference. "We should be evaluating our connections to the community, so we have good information about community events and whether there are memorials or large cookouts."

But Safe Streets knew. Officials from the city Health Department declined to comment and referred questions to the Living Classrooms Foundation. Bountress said officials are not sure exactly why the worker was at the cookout, but they believe it was part of his normal "canvassing," or walking through specific areas to spread a message of nonviolence.

He declined to comment further, citing the police investigation, but said in a statement sent by the Health Department that "these tragic events continue to demonstrate the need to change the norms which allow violence to be considered acceptable."

Bealefeld said police were working to confirm that account. "Safe Streets is over in East Baltimore, ostensibly to mediate these sorts of conflicts. To the extent we're determining whether that was consistent with their role, we're still working through that," he said.

In Chicago, a comprehensive report of the CeaseFire program released last year noted that police and the program's "violence interrupters," as they are called there, often clashed.

"In the neighborhoods, CeaseFire's public stance was that they were not 'snitches,' and did not collaborate with police," the report states. "This was well known to [police] commanders, and clearly a source of tension, for police hoped to receive information from CeaseFire about the perpetrators of shootings and killings."

Police there reported that they did not trust the program's former gang members and ex-convicts, expressing disbelief that they were reformed. Researchers said that view was not helped by the fact that CeaseFire staffers occasionally were arrested or were dismissed for failing drug tests.

But in the end, officers surveyed by researchers said they believed by a wide margin - 84 percent - that CeaseFire was likely to reduce the number of shootings and killings in the area, the study found.

One Chicago police commander acknowledged the tightrope that the program's staff walked and the need for police to stay at arm's length. He said he even instructed officers to threaten and question outreach workers during street encounters, to maintain appearances.

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