The success of anti-violence program Safe Streets depends on the ex-offenders it employs to be a voice against crime in the community. Over the weekend, some of that crime infiltrated the program’s East Baltimore offices.
The Living Classrooms Foundation runs the East Baltimore program. Ex-offenders employed by Safe Streets are sent into the community to become violence interrupters. This year, Living Classrooms says the interrupters have mediated 136 conflicts in the McElderry Neighborhood, 80 percent of which could have resulted in a shooting. In the Cherry Hill neighborhood, Safe Streets was credited with helping the notoriously troubled area go more than a year without a murder.
The program is based on a national model called Cure Violence that treats street violence as an epidemic. City Health Commissioner Leana Wen said the fact that the employees are ex-offenders is key to its success.
“People see them as having walked in the shoes of the individuals whose conflicts they’re trying to mediate,” Wen said.
But since-fired Safe Streets employees Artez Harris and Ricky Evans were found in their office after 2 a.m. Monday morning as police were pursuing armed robbery suspects. Police found seven guns, heroin and cocaine. Harris and Evans were arrested on drug and gun charges. Seven others were in the office with them, and were also arrested.
The balance the program must strike was on display at a press conference announcing the arrests. Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the program is a “vital part of the city’s crimefight.” Officials also reiterated that the East Baltimore office was closed following the raid, the two employees were fired and that the program has a “zero tolerance” policy for felony arrests. But Wen also acknowledged a “known risk” that people employed by the program could commit further crimes.
“We know that individuals who have offended before that there is a risk for re-offense,” Wen said.
Despite that risk, Living Classrooms CEO James Bond said he did not want the arrests to overshadow the program’s effectiveness.
“The incident is a reflection on the two individuals involved,” Bond said in a statement. “It should not take away from the great successes of the Safe Streets program in reducing and preventing violence.”
As the community voices an “all hands on deck” approach to stopping the gun violence that has left scores of people dead over the last three months, they will be without one piece of that program.
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