At a press conference last week, the mayor’s public safety team unveiled ambitious plans to expand Baltimore’s flagship anti-gun-violence program, which officials have cast as a hopeful development in an otherwise dismal year for violent crime. But a key partner wasn’t in attendance.

The midday conference at City Hall was the culmination of a weekslong campaign to highlight the most recent trial run of the Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS), which pairs Baltimore Police Department investigators with nonprofit groups providing support services, such as employment and housing. The idea is to offer the people most likely to shoot or be shot in the city a pathway out of the cyclical violence, rather than immediately threatening jail time and incarceration.

After a year in the historically violent Western District, officials said the concept had proven remarkably successful, attributing a nearly 34% year-over-year drop in homicides and nonfatal shootings to the program.

But out of the public view, a rift was growing between the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which oversees the strategy, and Roca Maryland, a key city partner and one of two service providers in GVRS.

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Despite its core responsibility for providing housing, employment and other forms of support to at-risk participants in the pilot program, Roca — a nationally-recognized nonprofit that works specifically with young men — said it was told by the associate director of the Group Violence Reduction Strategy on Nov. 3 that it was no longer invited to attend weekly coordination meetings and would not receive additional referrals from the program.

“To this day we have not been given an explanation as to why this decision was made,” Kurt Palermo, the executive vice president of Roca Maryland, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Roca is highly committed to this work and in full support of the city’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy and hopeful that we can continue to be a part of the expansion.”

Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (MONSE) Director Shantay Jackson declined to comment on the specifics of the dispute with Roca in an interview, citing ongoing contract negotiations. But she did say that the strategy required all service providers to adhere to the Group Violence Reduction Strategy playbook.

“I’m not going to let folks introduce a different model into what is academically proven to be successful because our city can’t afford getting this wrong again,” she said. Jackson recounted that in early October she had a conversation with Roca in which she made this sentiment clear, but added that she plans “to keep showing up until we figure out how to do this work together.”

With few other service providers for people at high risk of gun violence, the departure of Roca from GVRS could deal a considerable blow to the city’s plan to expand the program. During the pilot run, Roca says it offered its services to 31 people in the Western District and continues to work with 22 of them — metrics the city has touted in briefings on the impacts of the model.

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The Massachusetts-based Roca has a wider reach than other providers in Baltimore, where it has built a significant presence since first opening an office in the city in the summer of 2018. In the most recent fiscal year, Roca says it served 352 young men in the city and continues to work with 294 of them. The group also recently announced plans to expand into Baltimore County.

A four-year, $2.5 million operating agreement between Roca and Baltimore City expired earlier this year, and a new contract between the two parties remains unsigned. The city has also awarded Roca a smaller allocation of $75,000 in grants from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for violence prevention work through 2024.

Roca staff use cognitive behavioral theory to slow down and disrupt cycles of violence. They say 83% of the young men who stick with the program for 18 months or longer show improvement in emotional regulation and reduced levels of distress and substance abuse.

There have been rumblings about a rift between Roca and MONSE for weeks, but the city’s admission that the nonprofit is no longer operating in the Western District pilot caught criminal justice experts and City Council members by surprise.

Heather Warnken, executive director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore, is familiar with the limited capacity of the city to provide services to victims of gun violence.

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For the U.S. Department of Justice, Warnken led a citywide assessment detailing gaps in services and the mistreatment of Black and brown victims. She described the situation with Roca’s status in GVRS as “baffling and disconcerting.”

“A successful GVRS effort depends on strong partnerships, collaboration, and services that meaningfully address the victimization and trauma of those at highest risk,” Warnken said. “So it’s difficult to imagine such a key partner and asset in that work not being at the table, especially during the difficult process of scaling the strategy into other parts of the city.”

Hours after this article published, Councilmen Zeke Cohen and Mark Conway questioned Jackson about the status of Roca at a Thursday meeting of the council’s public safety committee. Both said they had seen the work that Roca does firsthand and urged Jackson to figure out a way to get them back on board.

After the hearing ended, Conway, the chair of the committee, said that Roca was the most experienced service provider the city had. Learning about the group’s tenuous status in the GVRS was “very troubling,” he added.

“Roca is an incredibly important partner in the room, and they need to continue to be in the room for us to be successful in this endeavor,” Conway said.

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Police reform activist Ray Kelly, who helps reassure potential participants in the GVRS program that they can trust it, said that he hasn’t seen Roca attend the weekly meetings in a month, but didn’t have any insights into the deterioration of the relationship.

“I focus on the proactive saving lives aspect of GVRS,” Kelly said. “I try to make sure that we’re treating the proposed participants with respect and constitutionally engaging them, but I stay away from the [law enforcement] investigations part of it, and all the politics is a bunch of bullshit to me.”

For now, Youth Advocate Programs, a national nonprofit that provides services for at-risk youth, is taking all referrals out of GVRS in the Western District, MONSE spokesperson Sydney Burns said in an email, including for the 16-to-24-year-old male demographic that has long been the focus of Roca’s work.

YAP, which came to the city in 2006, is still building up its staff. Tyrone Kent, a West Baltimore native who runs YAP’s group violence reduction program, said he has a team of six life coaches and three outreach workers working with about 42 active participants in the GVRS.

Kent said that YAP hopes to double that, adding six more life coaches and another three outreach workers, using ARPA grant money awarded by MONSE to support the GVRS expansion. He described the potential shift of more referrals to YAP as an “opportunity to grow.”

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YAP staff have already begun making connections in the Southwestern District, the next policing jurisdiction slated to receive the GVRS program, Kent added.

“We know that we need to scale up as far as the number of staff we have, but the work don’t stop,” Kent said. “That’s our reality. … A lot of people are waiting for us to show up.”

Baltimore has attempted to quell its gun violence epidemic through the GVRS model at least twice before, once in the 1990s and again in 2014. But advocates for the approach argue that it has yet to get a fair chance in the city, in part because previous attempts focused more on the heavy hand of law enforcement than on the service offerings intended to prevent arrests in the first place.

Expansion of the operation without Roca could leave the city to rely on a network of local service providers that lack the Massachusetts organization’s resources and track record.

When Baltimore first solicited applications for GVRS partners in early 2020, the city included a requirement that the awardee score 70 points or higher on a rubric measuring organizations’ experience, staffing capacity, operating costs and other factors. Months later, the city issued a revised call for applicants in which it dropped the 70-point prerequisite entirely, ultimately leading to the city’s partnership with YAP.

Founded in 1988, Roca was recruited to Baltimore in 2018 by former Mayor Catherine Pugh and an assembly of businesses and advocates, which provided the organization with $17 million to launch the local chapter, according to an article from that time in the Baltimore Sun. Staff members with Roca work closely with young men at risk of gun violence, providing support in emotional and life management, educational courses and transitional employment.

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