Johns Hopkins Gazette | January 20, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 20, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 18
Safe Streets in Baltimore

The Safe Streets team in East Baltimore: Richard Henderson, violence prevention coordinator; Dante Barksdale, outreach worker; James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation; Tard Carter, outreach worker; Danel Webster, Johns Hopkins; Leon Faruq, site director; Gardnel Carter, outreach supervisor; Cory Winfield, street supervisor.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Youth violence experts from Johns Hopkins take stock of city-run program

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins faculty member Daniel Webster has seen Baltimore at its brutal worst. The associate director for research at the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, Webster regularly observes neighborhoods where guns are used to settle disputes and homicides occur monthly.

An optimist, Webster envisions a day when inner-city gun violence is significantly more rare. He sees hope in a new city-run program that he has spent the past several years examining.

Last week, the Baltimore City Health Department released an independent evaluation of Safe Streets — a violence prevention program — by Webster and colleagues at the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. The Johns Hopkins team found many positive signs.

In 2007, Safe Streets was implemented by the Health Department and the Living Classrooms Foundation in two high-crime neighborhoods in East Baltimore, McElderry Park and Ellwood Park, and by the Health Department and Communities to Improve Lives in Southwest Baltimore's Union Square.

Safe Streets is modeled after the successful program CeaseFire Chicago, which was developed by Gary Slutkin, a professor at the University of Illinois' School of Public Health. In designing Ceasefire, Slutkin used some of the same methods he had applied during his time in Africa working on AIDS prevention.

The program has five core components: the use of surveillance data to identify communities with high rates of youth gun violence, development of a community coalition (clergy, engaged residents, city agencies, etc.), a visible campaign of nontolerance to gun violence, direct outreach to high-risk youth, and conflict intervention and mediation.

In sum, Webster said that Safe Streets is about changing behavior.

"This is a concerted effort to change the norms of what is acceptable," said Webster, an associate professor in the school's Health and Public Policy Division and also co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research. "Those involved with the program try to bring the community together in a variety of public forums such as cookouts, concerts and community fairs: venues where they can get out the message. And, if there is a fatal shooting, the community will march together at the site of the event to make it known to all that this is not OK and will not be tolerated."

He said the key component is outreach. The program's leadership recruits outreach workers, such as former gang members, who can gain the trust of the high-risk population and offer alternatives to violence.

"I think it's fair to say that the people the program tries to reach fully recognize the dangers of what they are doing, and that they would like a safer life," he said. "I think Safe Streets offers some alternatives and solutions so that they can figure out how to relate to people — and not die in the process."

Webster and his colleagues Jon Vernick and Jennifer Mendel conducted the interim evaluation through on-street surveys, analysis of crime trends over a six-year period and interviews with key players.

The team sought to estimate the program's effects on attitudes supportive of using guns to settle disputes among the target group (males ages 18 to 24) and to gauge the impact on homicides and nonfatal shootings in the three neighborhoods.

In McElderry Park, an extensive outreach effort was put into action. Program staff conducted hundreds of monthly contacts with high-risk "clients" and engaged in 53 mediations of potentially lethal disputes during its initial 15 months of implementation. Despite crime trends that, if not interrupted, would have predicted four homicides in McElderry Park over the period of the intervention, there was not a single one during the time studied.

In addition to eliminating homicides in McElderry Park, Safe Streets implementation was associated with significant reductions in homicides of victims under 30 years old in areas bordering Ellwood Park.

Overall, the report found that young men in the neighborhoods where Safe Streets was implemented were much less likely to hold attitudes supportive of using guns to resolve disputes than were those in two neighborhoods that had not implemented the program.

Webster said that the analysis did have several limitations, including that it could not fully adjust for other factors that can increase or decrease gun violence, such as new police activities or disputes involving rival gangs.

In his summary report to Joshua M. Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, Webster said that the overall compelling evidence validated the continuation of the Safe Streets program and the search for ways to increase its effectiveness.

The Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence will continue to evaluate the program, which was recently expanded to the Cherry Hill neighborhood, throughout 2009.

Safe Streets is supported by city funding and contributions from the Greater Baltimore Committee; the Abell, Goldseker, Annie E. Casey, Crane Family, Leidy and T. Rowe Price foundations; the Krieger Fund; and private citizens of Baltimore.

Webster has been a core faculty member at the School of Public Health since 1992. He has published articles on firearm policy, youth gun acquisition and carrying, the prevention of gun violence, intimate partner violence and adolescent violence prevention. He has studied the effects of a variety of violence prevention interventions including state firearm policies, community programs to change social norms concerning violence, public education and advocacy campaigns.

Recently, Webster has led an evaluation of Operation Safe Kids, a youth violence prevention program that provides community-based case management and monitoring to juvenile offenders who are at high risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence. Through the program, Baltimore City Health Department staff work closely with Department of Juvenile Services case managers and other state and city agencies to reduce youth violence in the city by ensuring these young people have the tools they need to become productive adults.

Each child is assigned a youth worker who becomes a presence in his or her life and coordinates a treatment service plan in order to meet each youth's needs; a clinical coordinator helps to develop a treatment plan that involves the family.

Webster evaluated the effects of the program last year and will submit a final report this spring.

"We found some encouraging things, notably that it lowered the probability of violence," he said. "But we need a little more data and time to be certain."

Webster views his role as someone who can lend credibility to effective programs like Safe Streets and Operation Safe Kids and then help spread the word.

"When you can identify what works, that word spreads throughout the country to other places that have the need to implement these types of programs," he said. "We want to reduce gun violence, period. Not just in Baltimore."


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