As the Baltimore City government pours unprecedented resources into alternative approaches to stemming gun violence, City Council members on Thursday expressed frustration at the mayor’s top official overseeing the work for not giving them a heads up on major changes announced last month.

The exchange between Councilman Mark Conway and Shantay Jackson, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, or MONSE, started out diplomatically enough, but soon escalated into a curt back-and-forth after Jackson revealed that the changes were being planned as far back as March. Conway questioned whether Jackson was doing enough to keep him and other members of the City Council informed.

It all centered on the city’s flagship Safe Streets program, which uses community members to defuse and interrupt conflicts to deter gun violence. Last month, MONSE, which oversees the Safe Streets program, announced its intent to consolidate its operations and reduce the number of community-based organizations running the 10 Safe Streets sites from seven to two in the span of one year. Conway called that a “significant change,” and asked Jackson to provide the reasoning behind it.

Jackson said the consolidation would establish more consistent practices across Safe Street sites and make them more efficient. But the fact that the changes had been previewed to operating groups and not the City Council in March became a sticking point, despite Jackson saying it would have been “imprudent for us to be having public conversations around something that had not been finalized.”

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Conway, who chairs the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said that it was MONSE’s goal to have a comprehensive and inclusive model “and I don’t think that can happen without the engagement of the council.”

“We are the legislative arm of city government,” he asserted.

After Conway was finished, Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton instructed Jackson, who at one point said she figured updates provided to Conway would suffice for the committee itself, that each council member’s office would require its own update.

“It has always been a process where each office is contacted individually,” Green Middleton said. “I mean, that’s what the mayor’s administration and agencies have to do.”

Jackson responded that, “to the extent that any harm was caused, I am deeply rooted enough to offer apologies.” She went on to explain her assumption that communicating with Conway would be enough when Conway cut her off and the two began a more heated debate, with Conway accusing Jackson of spreading misinformation and taking issue with an insinuation that a vacation he took over the summer prevented Jackson from reaching him.

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“I don’t appreciate muddying the water, and bringing up vacation in July,” Conway said. “What does that have to do with any of this?”

Jackson appeared to be done arguing with Conway, saying simply, “Thank you, sir.”

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who chairs the Rules and Legislative Oversight committee, abruptly recessed the hearing, which was taking place under his watch.

Afterwards, Schleifer told The Baltimore Banner that he shared Conway’s frustration.

“The council has been consistent on requesting this information in advance of learning about it in the media so that we are prepared to answer from our constituents when questions immediately arise,” he said.

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Changes coming to Safe Streets

Before frustrations erupted on Thursday, Jackson gave a densely packed and lengthy presentation on Safe Streets’ operations and the planned changes.

The Safe Streets sites are typically staffed by a site director, a supervisor, a violence prevention coordinator and four violence interruptors. The workers at a given Safe Streets post operate by identifying and diffusing conflicts in their immediate surrounding areas. Of all 10 sites currently operating in Baltimore, the workers cover about 2.6 square miles in a roughly 90-square-mile city.

As of now, six “community-based” operators control the 10 Safe Streets posts in McElderry Park, Cherry Hill, Park Heights, Sandtown-Winchester (which opened the year after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while in police custody), Belair-Edison, Belvedere, Brooklyn, Woodbourne-McCabe, Franklin Square and Penn North.

Since the start of the year, those 10 sites conducted 1,747 mediations; as of Oct. 16. Cherry Hill, Park Heights, and Sandtown-Winchester made the most contacts.

MONSE is modernizing Safe Streets operations to capture more data and gain a more sophisticated understanding of the impact of its work. It’s also expanding the group’s partnerships and reach.

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Jackson relayed the story of a young man whose father was incarcerated in federal prison when he alerted MONSE to the trauma of his son, who had just been shot and was planning to “shoot up the corner” upon his release from the hospital. The young man was staying at his grandmother’s house, his father said, and he was afraid that the retaliatory violence would wind up harming her as well.

Safe Streets workers relocated the grandmother to another home and tried for days to reach the young man until they finally did, connecting him with services and de-escalating the feud, Jackson said.

“The grandma returned home four days later, the situation was resolved with both parties, and there have been no incidents between the parties since then,” Jackson said. “These are real peoples’ lives and real work that is being done to ensure that we end the disease of gun violence in our neighborhoods.”

Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union.

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