Safe Streets

Gardnell Carter, center with glasses, Director of Safe Streets East, an volence intervention program, and his outreach workers canvas the streets to talk with people from the neighborhood to remind them that there are alternatives to violence. (KENNETH K. LAM / Baltimore Sun / February 2, 2010)

Carter is evasive when pressed on what that approach might entail - "whatever it takes," he said - but Safe Streets workers in Chicago used tactics such as setting boundaries for rival dealers or negotiating installment plans for repayment of drug debts, according to a 2008 study. Workers in both cities preach that violence is bad for business, drawing police attention and disrupting their ability to make money.

"They walked a fine line between their past and present, and between legal and illegal realms," researchers wrote in the study, by employing "street rules and logics when mediating property, gang, and personal conflicts."

In Baltimore, Safe Streets workers do not interact with police. In fact, law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, say they believe workers actively encourage their clients not to cooperate with police. And yet, the group's affiliation with the city raises questions for some on the streets.

That highlights one of Safe Streets' more perplexing dilemmas: while law enforcement is suspicious that Safe Streets workers are involved in crime, some of the programs' potential clients are paranoid that Safe Streets is working with police.


One of Safe Streets' first major interventions in Baltimore came when a young man told Carter there was a price on his head, and that his would-be attackers were circling the block as they spoke, getting ready to strike.

"We needed to bring everybody together," Carter says, recounting the incident. He found out the names of those involved and dispatched outreach workers to round them up. The room was eventually packed with at least 25 people, most on the aggressor's side and ready to fight.

Carter determined the catalyst for the dispute: One man had been coming into his rivals' territory to talk to girls, and looked at someone else the wrong way. Carter says he got the two men to sit down alone, shake hands and hug.

"That's one of the worst things you can do in this neighborhood, is stare someone down," Carter said. "A lot of them, they're real insecure. So their ego is their driving force."

There are heat-of-the-moment conflict resolutions, and then there are longer-term mediations, such as peace treaties. Safe Streets' leaders say they have persuaded several rival groups to agree not to draw blood when they have a dispute, and they claim the groups have adhered to those terms ever since. Outreach worker Dante Barksdale, 36, said persuading young men to stop wearing "flags" - bandanas that signified their gang affiliation - was a simple but powerful change.

There is evidence the approach works. For a 17-month stretch from 2007 to 2008, Webster's review found there were no fatal shootings in McElderry Park. A survey of the program's young clients also suggested their attitudes about guns and violence were shifting.

But the Hopkins study also showed that nonfatal shootings hadn't fallen nearly as much in Safe Streets areas as in some of the city's other high-crime areas. And around the same time Safe Streets launched in 2007, the city Police Department began an initiative that poured plainclothes officers into high-crime areas - including McElderry Park - to target historically violent individuals.

Safe Streets reached a crucial moment last summer. Leon Faruq, its director and spiritual leader, died from kidney disease in late June at age 58. The next month, violence exploded in McElderry Park. In a single incident, eighteen people were shot, including a Safe Streets worker who was making his rounds. By the end of the year, three people had been killed within the post's boundaries and another 10 in the immediate area.

In January, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III suggested Safe Streets had lost its way.

"I can't help but be concerned that we suffered a big setback with the death of Leon Faruq," Bealefeld said during an appearance on WYPR. "They have not really come back the way and functioned the way they had under Leon's leadership. These are great programs, but they're so completely dependent on dynamic leadership."

Bond praised Carter's leadership, saying he has been a key force from the very beginning and has assembled a reliable team. Both forcefully deny any connections to the man federal court papers identify as a BGF leader in charge of the program.

Outbreak of violence

On a cool, damp Thursday night recently, Carter stood alone on the sidewalk behind yellow police tape as officers finished up at a crime scene where two teenagers had just been shot. He was on the phone, incredulous.

"This is crazy, man," he said. "This stuff is getting ridiculous."

About an hour earlier, Carter and other violence interrupters walked through the same block to condemn a shooting from three days earlier, marching with bullhorns and calling for a stop to the violence. No sooner had he settled back into his office when police cruisers and ambulances screamed by in response to the double-shooting, in the same spot.

Carter stayed on the phone trying to find out what was behind the dispute as a colleague left for the hospital to try to establish contact with the family. Carter was hearing that the victim was only 13.

"Was he meant to get hit?" Carter asked over the phone.

In the days that followed, Safe Streets workers marched through the streets, again calling for an end to violence, with residents timidly standing in their front doors and hanging out windows in quiet approval. Behind the scenes, workers got in touch with the victim's family and tried to determine what the conflict was about.

They believe the incident has been quashed, for now, though they know that months, even years can go by before some decide to retaliate. There hasn't been a homicide in the program's two main areas in more than four months, but maintaining calm will hinge on staying in touch with the key players. They say that work will continue informally, even as Safe Streets' operations are shelved as City Hall conducts a review.

"Each one of those outreach workers has a dozen or so high-risk individuals who look up to them, who are in a fragile place and can go one way or the other," Webster said.

Carter stood outside the Monument Street office on a recent weeknight with outreach worker Tard Carter, 33, as men passed by on the sidewalk, shaking hands and chatting briefly. They said they remain focused on their mission.

"You've got to be passionate about this," Tard Carter said. "The only thing that turns off is the money. We live this."