Baltimore Safe Streets sites ‘clearly’ reduce homicides, shootings, Johns Hopkins evaluation finds

Tribune Content Agency

BALTIMORE — Baltimore’s flagship community violence intervention program, Safe Streets, has led to reductions in nonfatal shootings and homicides, according to a Johns Hopkins analysis of nearly 15 years of data.

In the neighborhoods served by the five Safe Streets sites that have been open four years or more, the analysis indicated there was an average of 22% fewer homicides than predicted. And across all sites, Safe Streets was associated with a 23% reduction in nonfatal shootings, researchers found.

Daniel Webster, a co-author of the study from Johns Hopkins’ Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said that while there is further research to be done, such as gathering insights from people close to the program and in surrounding communities, this study shows there has “clearly been less gun violence as a result” of Safe Streets’ work in Baltimore.

“We’re seeing in the neighborhood of about a 20% drop in gun violence when you implement a Safe Streets program in a neighborhood,” Webster said in an interview on Thursday.

Safe Streets is a community violence intervention strategy built around “violence interrupters,” people with knowledge of the streets and community credibility, tasked with de-escalating conflicts and connecting people at-risk of gun violence with services or opportunities.

The program is a piece of what Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott calls a community violence “ecosystem” designed to tamp down the city’s consistently high level of violence. The city has recorded more than 300 homicides for each of the past eight years.

A statement from Shantay Jackson, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, called the program an “integral component” of that ecosystem and said the Hopkins evaluation “underscores the profound impact that Safe Streets has had.”

“Safe Streets staff members work tirelessly and selflessly to mediate conflicts in our communities and encourage peace,” Jackson said in an email. “These results would not be possible without their commitment to our city and fellow neighborhoods.”

Safe Streets has been in the spotlight in recent years, following the killings of several frontline workers and an internal review that found problems with its oversight, training and staffing. The city announced last year that the nonprofits running Safe Streets sites would be consolidated and that the city would add new hospital-based violence intervention programs.

Hopkins researchers estimated Safe Streets’ gun violence reductions created roughly $7.20 to $19.20 in “social and economic benefits” for every $1 invested in the program. City, state and federal officials have spent between $500,000 and $750,000 per year, per Safe Streets site, since it began in 2007, according to the report, which called it a “relatively modest” investment.

The Hopkins analysis, which analyzed data through July 31, 2022, found variations from site to site and over the duration of sites’ work. The city operates 10 Safe Streets sites, which cover 2.6 square miles of Baltimore’s 90 square miles. The report examined the history of each, along with the Mondawmin site that operated from July 2012 to June 2016.

Webster said Thursday that he believes the Safe Streets model is “challenged” by changes in gun violence over time, including the move from organized gang violence to more fractured street conflicts and destabilizing phenomena such as the COVID pandemic and the emergence of so-called “ghost” guns.

He hopes a “next phase” of research will gather information not included in the scope of this report, such as the voices of frontline workers and participants, or context about the challenges the program has faced around implementation or staff support.

The internal review found, for example, there was high staff turnover and persistent vacancies at some sites, along with relatively low salaries.

The baseline salaries for Safe Streets positions were increased by $5,000 last year, bringing the starting salary to $45,000, said Sydney Burns, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. Salaries now include cost of living adjustments for each fiscal year, which was not done previously, she said.

Additionally, 63% of employees reported being traumatized by the work mediating conflicts and 67% said they worried about losing their jobs over funding cuts.

Baltimore neighborhoods, Hopkins researchers wrote in their most recent analysis of Safe Streets, have long suffered from structural racism and disinvestment, along with “deep problems” with policing.

The city is still “scarred” by Freddie Gray’s in-custody killing and the resulting uprising, the Gun Trace Task Force scandal and “persistent” police abuses. Meanwhile, gun violence has surged with historic levels of gun purchases and the phenomenon of “ghost” guns, the study said.

“Given these challenges, it is remarkable that Safe Streets appears to have reduced gun violence by 23%,” the report said. “It is reasonable to expect increased and more consistent violence-reducing effects of Safe Streets with stable funding, increased investment in workers, improved oversight, and increased access to critical services and supports for individuals to step away from violence.”

The overall reduction in homicides at long-running Safe Streets sites included a 28% drop in McElderry Park and a 48% reduction in Lower Park Heights, according to researchers’ analysis. The six newer sites — Belair-Edison, Penn North, Woodbourne-McCabe, Franklin Square, Brooklyn and Belvedere — had more varied estimates that were less precise, researchers said.

Eight of the 11 neighborhoods served by Safe Streets sites saw reductions in nonfatal shootings. The report noted Sandtown-Winchester’s site led to a 53% reduction in nonfatal shootings over a period of more than seven years.

The report used an approach called synthetic control, which employed algorithms to minimize prediction error and gave weight to comparison neighborhoods best correlated to Safe Streets neighborhoods. Webster said it was “more accurate in terms of prediction,” compared to past evaluations.

He said the model could be used to analyze future research questions, such as how neighborhood conditions could impact the nature of gun violence and the success of Safe Streets intervention. He said he hoped a future Hopkins dissertation would gather insights from those closest to the work and inform future analysis.

The city funded the Hopkins evaluation of Safe Streets for $126,479. A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement said it plans biennial qualitative and quantitative external evaluations.