Mayor restores money for Safe Streets program

Task force did not find gang infiltration, recommends operational changes

May 07, 2010|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

A task force appointed by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake to review allegations that an anti-violence program was controlled by a powerful gang could not substantiate the claim, and it has recommended that funding be restored.

Rawlings-Blake followed the suggestion, according to a spokesman, clearing the way for the groups — part of a program known as Safe Streets — to resume mediating conflicts in two of the city's most troubled neighborhoods.

But the review found flaws in oversight of the program and suggested that control be shifted from the city before the end of the year. And money for one group could be withdrawn if it does not make changes.

The panel's report was released on Friday, the same day that a man police believe is a leader of the Black Guerilla Family, accused of using outreach work as a cover for drug-dealing and gang activities, made his first appearance in federal court.

Todd Duncan, 36, pleaded not guilty to heroin conspiracy charges during a brief hearing in U.S. District Court. Duncan was hired as a Safe Streets worker in 2007 when the nonprofit Communities Organized to Improve Life was chosen to operate a West Baltimore site. Though the group's public funding for gang outreach was terminated a year later, COIL continued to perform such work independently, officials said.

A search warrant affidavit contained transcripts of Duncan's conversations that were captured by Drug Enforcement Administration agents on wiretaps — as well as a single allegation that a current Safe Streets location in East Baltimore was controlled by a BGF gang member named "Gerimo." The document added to concerns raised by the DEA since last year that the gang is focused on infiltrating legitimate enterprises.

The day the allegations surfaced in April, Rawlings-Blake, who weeks earlier had announced $1 million in grant money to continue funding Safe Streets, froze the money for the East Baltimore and Cherry Hill sites and ordered the review.

Based on a Chicago concept, Safe Streets involves hiring ex-offenders with street credibility to mediate disputes and reduce violence in areas with high gun crime. Workers connect with troubled young men and hold community rallies and cookouts, preaching alternatives to violence.

Rawlings-Blake restored funding to the Safe Streets program in Cherry Hill operated by the Family Health Centers after reviewing the report, spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said. That site has "strict internal controls regarding employee arrests and worker safety that should serve as a model for other sites," the panel found.

At the East Baltimore site, operated in the McElderry Park neighborhood by the Living Classrooms Foundation, funding was restored with conditions that the group meet certain requirements. The site had failed to make significant changes to procedures after an outreach worker was shot at a cookout last July during a burst of gunfire that claimed 12 victims. After interviewing program staff members and managers, task force members determined that employee screening and personnel safety policies should be improved.

Daniel Webster, a task force member and Johns Hopkins professor who has studied Safe Streets, said the review made it clear that the nonprofits had largely ceded day-to-day oversight to the ex-offender employees.

"The key was making sure we didn't sever ties with the community," said Rick Hite, a retired Baltimore police commander who participated in the review. "They've made serious inroads with the community, but we needed some additional oversight."

Among the recommendations: Living Classrooms should develop safety protocols to determine whether conflicts that workers are mediating are too high-risk and jeopardize workers' safety.

By October, the task force concluded, an "established, non-government entity" should assume control from the city Health Department, which has managed the Safe Streets program since 2007. The Chicago Safe Streets model calls for community organizations, not local government, to manage the program, they said. Webster said it is unclear how that new arrangement might play out.

At Friday's hearing, Duncan, one of the 13 people charged in last month's heroin conspiracy indictment, said he is currently employed by COIL, earning $2,600 a month (COIL's Executive Director Stacey Smith has said that Duncan and Ronald Scott were terminated the day of the indictments).

He was being held at on a parole warrant for a separate charge, and his public defender asked that he be transferred from a state prison to federal custody. U.S. District Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey agreed to the request.

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