In Baltimore's streets, interrupters face danger to stop a cycle of violence
Updated February 13, 2022 at 7:30 AM ET
On a recent Wednesday, Dante Johnson walked up and down Belair Road in northeast Baltimore, a cigarette between two fingers and one earbud in his ear to respond to phone calls.
Johnson is a site director for the nonprofit organization Safe Streets, which operates in 10 Baltimore neighborhoods including here in Belair-Edison. He's always assessing the area around him, always stopping to say hello to a familiar face or introduce himself to a new one.
"This is an area that we consider a hot spot," Johnson explains as he walks down the sidewalk. It's just before lunchtime, not particularly crowded. "Our violence interrupters, they work out here in pairs every day. We try to gauge the people down here and make changes in their life."
Violence interrupters such as Johnson are one of the ways this city is trying to address crime. Baltimore routinely ranks among the cities with the highest number of per capita homicides in the U.S. — 2021 was the seventh consecutive year in which the city saw more than 300 homicides.
And now, violence interrupters have become victims to violence themselves. The program has been in the spotlight after a Safe Streets worker was killed in January — the third violence interrupter killed in just over a year. It comes as homicide rates have risen in cities across the country in the last two years.
But in the part of Belair-Edison where Safe Streets operates, there hadn't been any gun-related homicides in more than a year at the time Johnson talked with NPR in early February.
Johnson says he believes that part of the reason why is the work that he and a group of men dressed in signature orange and black do every day.
As he walks around the neighborhood, Johnson waves to a man he recognizes across the street, stops inside a corner store and then outside of a church to say good morning to the pastor. At a beauty shop, he swings open the door and a woman with her hair in multicolored locs sticks her head out.
Monica Carrington, who's known as Minx, has had businesses in this neighborhood for the last three decades.
"It was more professional around here and it's changed. It's a whole different area, more crime," she explains. "It's just in 30 years, things have changed — as everything does."
While Belair Road isn't particularly crowded right now, at night, Johnson says, things can look completely different.
"You're talking 30 people out here, you know, doing different things or, you know, making a living the way they make a living. Sometimes it's a little tense, too," he says.
"So for the violence interrupters, you know, they got to be on point because you never know [if there is] some danger approaching, that kind of thing, and be ready to kind of try to intervene."
Being a violence interrupter comes with its own risks
Established in 2007, the goal of Baltimore's Safe Streets program is to de-escalate conflicts before they become violent or, worse, deadly. The program's motto is "Stop shooting. Start living."
People can see those words on signs posted in windows all around this neighborhood, in big bold letters on the door of the converted rowhouse where Safe Streets operates and stitched into Dante Johnson's jacket.
The work is dangerous.
DaShawn McGrier, who had been working as a violence interrupter for a little more than a month, was killed in a quadruple shooting in the city's Milton-Montford area in January. Kenyell Wilson was killed in July and Dante Barksdale, a beloved and well-known Safe Streets leader, was shot to death outside the Douglass Homes housing project in January 2021.
Mayor Brandon Scott says gun violence in Baltimore is a "disease."
It's "had a hold on my city for longer than I've been breathing oxygen," he says. "What folks want to rush to is there's one cause or one thing — one action and one solution. And what we know from living here is that there is no quick fix."
As a part of his five-year crime plan, Scott plans to expand the city's violence intervention programs and wants to reduce fatal and non-fatal gun violence by 15% annually.
Scott envisions ramping up the number of Safe Streets sites in Baltimore to 30. The city is currently evaluating how to scale it up and expand the types of services it offers.
"I never, ever, ever, ever want our violence interrupters to lose that authenticity in the things they are able to do," Scott says. "But we have to evolve in a way that the totality of gun violence workers in the city, from our hospitals, from Safe Streets, from the police department, from everyone else ... to have some sort of working relationship that does not invalidate any of those partners."
Johnson says that for him and his team to do their job well in Belair-Edison, they cannot work with the city's police force.
"They got a job to do, and it's not connected to the job that we do," he says. "We don't oppose law enforcement, but understand — we can't work with them doing this work, because people have to trust us."
It's hard to measure the impact of violence interruption
Phillip Atiba Goff is the co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, which collects data on police interactions. He says that in many places, law enforcement is used to deal with problems "we should use almost anything else to solve."
"I don't think we solve problems with punishment when their real cure is care," he said in an interview.
Goff believes that violence interruption does reduce violence in communities, but there are significant challenges to measuring that impact.
"It's incredibly painstakingly difficult to do in any city, which is why most of these things that are funded on shoestrings and are literally just funded at their cost don't have the money for an evaluation of it, which is why we have less of violence interruption than we do on some of these other interventions that work," he said.
The most recent research on Safe Streets' efficacy in Baltimore was completed in 2012 by Johns Hopkins. It found the program did help reduce homicides and fatal shootings to varying degrees in the four different neighborhoods where Safe Streets operated at the time. But that was a decade ago, and the mayor says the city's new evaluation of Safe Streets will help determine any future expansion.
Scott says that the organization — and more broadly, Baltimore's violence prevention strategies, must evolve, "but in order to evolve, we have to know where the gaps are."
Some call for more training for interrupters
Some also question whether Safe Streets violence interrupters receive enough formalized training and support given the inherent danger in doing their work.
"They need more than just having relationships in the community and being familiar with the community or with the criminal players in those communities," says Latrina Antoine, the editor-in-chief of the website Baltimore Witness, which tracks crime and justice. "They need more hands-on adequate training because they are going into very traumatic situations, are going into violent situations and they need to be fully equipped to be able to handle whatever they will encounter in those situations."
Part of the qualification for doing this work, Johnson says, is having "street related" experience, noting that he's had his own run-ins with law enforcement and struggled with addiction. But he also is certified as a peer recovery coach and has worked for the Baltimore City Health Department.
As for his colleagues, he says, they receive some training, including in conflict mediation. They follow the Cure Violence model of violence interruption, which was first implemented in Chicago.
"Our best form of engagement has necessarily been kind of like buying time," he says. "So when emotions are flaring and people are arguing and they talk about shooting each other and we around or we catch wind of it, then we try to work with both parties ... and talk to them about the consequences of this going any further."
Safe Streets needs "credible messengers" to be effective
The violence interrupters on Johnson's crew arrive for their shifts around 2 p.m., all wearing black and orange Safe Streets gear. There are currently three workers on the team — Johnson wants to hire two more.
"We look for credible messengers to understand this community that's from the community and that have respect in the community," Johnson says of his team. "We talking about people that are known to shoot somebody or people that we had identified ... living a hard, risky lifestyle and we need to engage those folks in a way to try to help prevent them from dying in the streets."
Albert Williams works on Johnson's team in Belair-Edison.
He got involved with Safe Streets because of Dante Barksdale, the Safe Streets leader who was killed about a year ago. He said Barksdale had "seen the influence that I had on my little area around here, and he just constantly kept messing with me," pushing him to join the organization.
"He really drove me. He passed away, so it's like, I got to do it now because he seen it in me, so now I've got to see it in myself."
Also on the team is Lamont Crooks, who said he's watching "all the damage that's being done to the youth out in the streets."
"I was once [one of] them youth. So I figured that if I can stop it, help them out and stop them from going down the path that I went down, then at least give it a try," he said.
As they prepare to head out for their shift, the recent killing of DaShawn McGrier is not far from their minds. Johnson says McGrier wasn't targeted for his work, but he called the shooting a "bad, sad tragedy."
Crooks is wrestling with his own response to McGrier's killing. The other violence interrupters, he said, are like family. He says some days are better than others.
"I was telling them, like earlier, once I came in, I might need to really talk to somebody because, you know, this becomes overwhelming," he said. "When you lose one of your members, they like your family, your brothers."
Asked what would make him feel safer as he does his work, Albert Williams had a very practical response: Bulletproof vests.
Crooks was shot last year near the Safe Streets site where he works — a bullet from a shooting down the street grazed his leg. He's glad he wasn't seriously hurt, he said, but worried that it could have just as easily killed a child.
"So you never know if it's meant for you or not, you know? But it happened," he said.
Later that day, the violence interrupters in Belair-Edison helped mediate a brewing conflict at the local mattress store. Johnson said later that it had gotten "pretty loud and argumentative," so his team separated the two parties and helped defuse the situation.
Ultimately there was no incident, which is one way Johnson judges for himself if his work is making a difference.
"It makes me feel like our job is being done and that we're saving people's lives and we're ...alleviating tensions in our community," he said.
The interrupters' work is never done
Less than a week after NPR spoke with violence interrupters in Belair-Edison, there were two gun-related homicides in the group's work zone in the neighborhood. The more than a year without a gun-related homicide that Johnson and others had cautiously talked about was over.
Days later, Safe Streets workers and others — a group of several dozen — marched through the neighborhood.
Dante Johnson was the man at the front of the group, megaphone in hand, leading the call and response.
"What do we want?" Johnson asked. "Safe streets," the group roared back.
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