Atlantic Cities

Fighting Crime With Former Criminals

Fighting Crime With Former Criminals
Baltimore City Health Department

Delaino Johnson was locked up for the first time when he was 16. Soon after his release, he was back behind bars again. In the years since, he's been picked up for all kinds of crimes – multiple assaults, possession of narcotics, theft, burglary, armed robbery. He spent seven years in a New Jersey prison at one point.

But around 2009 he realized he needed to straighten out. "I got older and tired of going behind bars," says Johnson, now 44. "I just realized something had to change in my life."

Someone in Johnson’s situation might have trouble finding work. How many professions greet multiple felons with open arms? He is, however the ideal candidate to work for a growing community outreach program that a recent study says reduced homicides by up to 50 percent in four of Baltimore’s most violent neighborhoods.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health studied the Baltimore-based Safe Streets program between July 2007 and December 2010. Safe Streets hires ex-gang members and ex-convicts such as Johnson to mediate potential disputes between individuals on the verge of violent acts.

A replication of a program called Cease Fire – which was tested first in Chicago and has since been implemented in other cities such as Philadelphia, Oakland, and New Orleans (it’s also the focus of a recent documentary, The Interrupters) – Safe Streets mediated nearly 300 potentially violent interactions in Baltimore, according to the Johns Hopkins study. It also prevented “at least five homicide incidents and 35 nonfatal shooting incidents," according to the study.

To hear Johnson tell it, his role in the program is, first and foremost, to be a credible messenger. "You gotta be from the community," he says, explaining that it’s his job to "build a relationship with the highest risk individuals in the community" – in his case, the gangland neighborhood of Cherry Hill.

A big part of the program’s success, he says, is trust.

"They know you were the highest risk before," he says. "So they know you know where they’re coming from" – and they also know "talking to you won’t bring the police around."

According to Gary Slutkin, the founder and executive director of Cease Fire, the lack of police presence is a major factor.

Slutkin is an epidemiologist – much of his work focuses on preventative medicine – not a criminologist or a police officer. He designed the Cease Fire program to treat neighborhood violence as a public health issue. "It’s a disease," he says.

"I was working on other kinds of epidemics such as cholera and AIDS," he says. "So when I started looking into neighborhood gun violence in the U.S., I noticed the trends looked like standard epidemiological curves. There was clustering. There were certain areas – hotspots – where violence seemed to center. I started to think about behavior and I realized this violent behavior was contagious."

The idea, he says, is to focus on behavior: to mediate so violence stops spreading. To do this, he says, people such as Delaino Johnson are integral.

“We’re looking for three things in our mediators,” he says. “Credibility, access and trust. We need to be sure these mediators are on our side now, meaning they can’t be criminals anymore. We need to be sure they really want to stop people from making violent mistakes. And we need people who are from these neighborhoods, who know the individuals who might turn to violence and who can build trust."

A big part of that, he says, is eliminating the fear that police might be involved in interactions.

Daniel Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, puts that element of the program diplomatically.

"Some of the things [the outreach workers] have to mediate involve illegal economies," he says, meaning disputes over theft, drugs and gang turf among other things. "There’s no way for the actors involved in those kinds of disputes to go to police to arbitrate. So there’s a demand for that."

Delaino Johnson says one of his most recent "interrupts" involved gang members bickering over drug turf.

They were at odds with each other, as Johnson explains it, over "who’s gonna sell here and here and what the boundaries are." He says, "a few people [in these gangs] had been lost in the past. People had been shot on both sides."

So he and other members of Safe Streets “got the major players, had a summit and sat down. We mediated a conflict. And by the end, everyone was barbecuing together."

Obviously not every dispute ends in peace, Johnson admits. Last year saw Baltimore’s lowest number of homicides since the late 1970s, but it’s still among the nation’s most violent cities.
 
And Safe Streets hasn’t totally avoided controversy. In April 2010, an East Baltimore site had $1 million of funding withheld by the city after one of its outreach sites was alleged to be connected with the Black Guerilla Family gang. A task force was appointed by the city’s acting mayor to investigate.
 
Webster was on that task force. He says the accusations were never proven and “it was more likely that undercover law enforcement really didn’t know who was or wasn’t an outreach worker.” More specifically: “[Safe Streets workers] passed out hundreds of Safe Streets t-shirts at several events in East Baltimore. Some people with those t-shirts did good things, some did bad things,” implying that perhaps the folks connected with the Black Guerilla Family had Safe Streets t-shirts but no official connections to the group.
 
To correct this, he says, outreach workers now wear distinctive clothing – bright orange t-shirts in the summer, black sweatshirts or jackets that say “Safe Streets” in bright prominent lettering in the winter.
 
“They now don’t give those items to anyone but workers,” he says. "It's a constantly changing process."
 

Photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Matt Stroud writes about crime, healthcare and city issues from Pittsburgh. All posts »

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