Four months after city leaders celebrated the results of Safe Streets, their flagship anti-violence program, one of the worst acts of violence in Baltimore history took place squarely within the group’s turf.

Gunfire erupted at a South Baltimore block party on Saturday, leaving two dead and 28 others wounded shortly after midnight. Earlier that night, four Safe Streets workers had monitored the Brooklyn Homes party and stepped in to calm minor arguments. Their shifts went from 3 to 11 p.m., and the crew left around 11:30 p.m., according to the nonprofit that operates Safe Streets in Brooklyn. About an hour later, the shooting started.

“Once the Safe Streets staff heard of the shooting, they immediately returned to the scene, remaining on-site and at the hospitals where victims, including their loved ones, were being treated until 5 a.m.,” Kevin Keegan with Catholic Charities wrote in an email. “The team returned to the scene at 10 a.m. the following morning to continue to support the community.”

Keegan added, “Catholic Charities is proud of our team members in Brooklyn.”

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In the context of Baltimore’s burgeoning “community violence intervention ecosystem,” the shooting underscores some of the institutional weaknesses of the Safe Streets program that’s operated in Baltimore since 2007.

As that network of social services groups grows, some have viewed the Safe Streets model as being somewhat outdated. Premised on using longtime community residents as mediators, some gun violence experts have questioned whether that reliance on “OGs,” older folks who have experience in the criminal justice system, is effective at reaching young people, who are now at the heart of the city’s gun violence crisis.

In the case of Saturday night’s shooting, those concerns are compounded by the fact that the understaffed Brooklyn site, which was opened fairly recently in 2019, has not seen the same success as other Safe Streets territories.

A report released by Johns Hopkins University in March noted that the Brooklyn site saw an increase of homicides during its tenure. Daniel Webster, who authored the study, said that it’s hard to know whether the shooting could have been prevented by Safe Streets workers without more details, but the fact that the DJ reportedly stopped the party multiple times to calm tensions stuck out to him.

“While their typical day-to-day stuff doesn’t look like monitoring a very, very large party deep into the night, it is a common thing that community violence intervention programs do,” Webster said. “It’s hard to know with certainty that this was a preventable thing from the Safe Streets angle, but the fact that they were there, they were deployed there, tells me that they thought they could have the potential to prevent shootings.”

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Community residents, for their part, have questioned why Safe Streets didn’t do more to intervene before the situation deteriorated further. Many have asked why police weren’t notified, though dispatch communications showed that law enforcement was aware of the party and reports that people there were armed, but chose not to do anything about it.

Beyond that, Safe Streets workers are explicitly trained not to involve law enforcement in their interventions, which maintains their credibility with communities who are distrustful of police after decades of antagonistic relations.

At Brooklyn Homes, police said, two shooters opened fire amid a crowd of hundreds. Two people were killed: Kylis Fagbemi, 20, and Aaliyah Gonzalez, 18, an honors student and recent graduate of Glen Burnie High School. The wounded ranged from age 13 to 32. Authorities are offering $28,000 for information leading to arrests.

Webster added that most of the city’s 10 Safe Streets sites are understaffed. The Brooklyn office is budgeted for five violence interrupters, but two of those positions are currently open. Keegan noted the Safe Streets workers are members of the Brooklyn Homes community and also shaken by the violence.

“They, like so many others including their own families, were directly impacted, injured and traumatized by this event,” he wrote.

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The Hopkins gun violence professor also emphasizes that it is entirely plausible that Safe Streets did the best they could to intervene, and someone still came back to the party with a gun.

“Maybe they did everything they could do,” he suggested.

A man in a T-shirt with a white beard stands in front of a red door with a Safe Streets sticker on it.
A Safe Streets sticker on the door of a residence in Brooklyn Homes. (Brenda Wintrode)

By midnight, hundreds of teenagers and young adults had converged on the block party. City logs show a flood of 911 calls. By 10 p.m., someone posted online a video clip of a young man flashing a gun. Police radioed that the crowd seemed to near 1,000 people and they dispatched a helicopter.

Families in Brooklyn Homes and people across the city have asked why city officials failed to make sure the annual Brooklyn Day celebration was safe and why police did not intervene when the party spun out of control.

Sunday morning, a woman who asked for anonymity to protect her safety told The Baltimore Banner there had been repeated scares that young people had brought guns. The woman said she asked Safe Streets workers to step in.

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“I asked them, why don’t y’all mediate? They said, ‘we don’t know what’s going on,’” she recalled.

Safe Streets is funded with a mix of city and state dollars totaling about $5 million in the budget year ending June 30.

The Public Safety Committee of the Baltimore City Council has called a meeting for next Thursday to examine the response of city agencies and police to the party and the shooting.

Reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.

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