Safe Streets prevention program faces questions after indictment

Nathan Barksdale was anti-violence outreach worker, now accused of dealing heroin

December 04, 2013|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

The reputation that Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale gained as one of Baltimore's most notorious heroin dealers also made him a good outreach worker for Safe Streets, an innovative program that enlists former offenders to help mediate disputes before they erupt in gunfire.

The fact that Barksdale had survived more than 20 gunshot wounds and once controlled lucrative drug territory in West Baltimore gave him credibility on the street. Then last week the supposedly reformed Barksdale was indicted again, accused of dealing drugs as a member of the Black Guerrilla Family gang.

The accusations come as city officials continue to boost funding to the Safe Streets program, run by community groups with taxpayer dollars and help from the city health department. A new site opened earlier this year.

"We know that Safe Streets works," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in an interview. "I am not going to let one person destroy that progress."

But while city officials say the indictment has not shaken their faith in Safe Streets, they acknowledge the challenge of finding employees who have broken free of their past without compromising their credibility.

Federal authorities tied Safe Streets members to the Black Guerrilla Family in 2010. Rawlings-Blake immediately froze funding to the two sites operating at the time. She also created a task force that recommended the East Baltimore unit tighten its employee screening and improve safety policies.

Barksdale is not accused of involving the program in illegal activity.

City Councilman Brandon M. Scott pledged to question police and health department officials about Barksdale's indictment and whether city officials made the changes recommended in 2010, as promised.

"Whether they did or not is up for argument," he said.

Daniel Webster, a Johns Hopkins professor who worked on a study of Safe Streets' effectiveness, said the indictment highlights the need to closely manage the program. He said organizers must take steps to keep workers safe and to help them resist the temptation to fall back into bad habits.

"We need rigorous hiring, oversight, and management of people employed to reduce violent crime," he said.

A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study last year estimated that Safe Streets had reduced fatal shootings by five and other shootings by 35 over three years, and notably cut violence in the neighborhoods with a program. The study compared Safe Streets neighborhoods with other violent parts of the city and controlled for variables like increased police activity.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor would like to expand Safe Streets.

"If more funds can be identified, she is certainly willing to work with the community and explore additional possibilities for growing the program," he said.

The Safe Streets sites are run by community organizations but have a web of ties to authorities. The majority of the funding comes from the federal government, and the Baltimore Health Department organizes training for the community groups that run Safe Streets in four city neighborhoods.

The program's total annual funding is $1.4 million. It relies on a small group of employees charged with mediating in situations that might lead to an outbreak of violence. They also work to change attitudes toward the use of guns.

Between July 2007 and the end of 2010, Safe Streets workers mediated 276 conflicts, according to the Hopkins study — the vast majority involving armed gang members.

Darrell Berry, 36, who worked at the Safe Streets location in Mondawmin, was unable to escape the violence in the neighborhood.

He was shot and killed in late October in the 2200 block of N. Fulton Ave. a block from the recreation center Safe Streets uses as a base in the neighborhood. The case is still open, but police said they do not believe Berry's death was connected to his work.

Meanwhile, the charges against Barksdale illustrate the tightrope that Safe Streets walks in finding employees who know the reality of life in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods and have themselves been involved in crime, but who are able to act independently and moderate disputes.

Barksdale fit that profile, outreach workers said.

In the 1980s, he terrorized housing projects in West Baltimore as a high-profile heroin dealer. He has been shot more than 20 times, according to law enforcement officials, and claimed to be the inspiration for the Avon Barksdale character in "The Wire."

Barksdale had been working with Safe Streets in the city's Mondawmin neighborhood since July 2012, using his gravitas to intervene in disputes before they ended in shots fired. Delaino Johnson, a Safe Streets veteran who directs the Mondawmin branch, said Barksdale's efforts had "a hell of an impact.

"From my standpoint he did good work with us," Johnson said. "He had a large impact on reducing violence in our targeted area."

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