A years-long evaluation into the effectiveness of Baltimore’s flagship gun violence intervention program, Safe Streets, found that several of its outposts significantly reduced nearby shootings, resulting in fewer homicides, despite “relatively modest” costs to the city and challenges in staffing the inherently dangerous work.

The report, led by Johns Hopkins professor Daniel Webster, who has spent years studying gun violence in Baltimore, found that the city’s Safe Streets outposts reduced nearby homicides and nonfatal shootings by an average of 16% to 23%, with larger reductions in homicides during the first four years of the longer-running sites.

While Webster’s report found that newer sites reduced nonfatal shootings, those locations didn’t see a significant reduction in homicides.

Baltimore has Safe Streets sites in 10 of its most dangerous neighborhoods, among them Belair-Edison, Belvedere and Cherry Hill. The oldest site, McElderry Park, was established in 2007. The program expanded significantly in 2019: adding six sites that year.

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In an interview with The Baltimore Banner, Webster said his study found compelling evidence that Safe Streets reduces gun violence, though some sites are more effective than others, and even the more successful ones can fluctuate in terms of their impact, which he described as consistent with previous research.

“Gun violence is costly to Baltimore generally, and more specifically to the most impacted communities,” Webster said. “So when you get a roughly 20% reduction in gun violence with a relatively modest investment that wouldn’t appear to have detrimental consequences like mass incarceration or something like that, to me, I think it’s rather remarkable.”

Johns Hopkins professor David Webster discusses the impact that Baltimore's Safe Streets sites have had during a panel event on March 30, 2023. Baltimore Safe Streets has had a noticeable effect on homicides, reducing the numbers in nearby city blocks significantly.
Johns Hopkins professor David Webster discusses the impact that Baltimore's Safe Streets sites have had during a panel event on March 30, 2023. Baltimore Safe Streets has had a noticeable effect on homicides, reducing the numbers in nearby city blocks significantly. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Safe Streets is funded with a mix of city and state dollars totaling about $5 million in the current budget year. The study estimated that each site prevented an average of three shootings each year, one fatal and two nonfatal, which suggested “social and economic benefits of $7.20 to $19.20 per every dollar spent on the program, depending on the method used to estimate the costs of shootings.”

The sites operate within neighborhood boundaries and are fully staffed at about seven people, including four violence interruptors whose jobs involve the dangerous work of seeking out and defusing conflicts.

The sites have operated with some degree of volatility: workers are subjected to intense degrees of secondary trauma interacting with those dealing with violence or stress. For many years, they went without cost of living raises. And over 14 months between 2021 and 2022, three Safe Streets workers were killed.

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Mayor Brandon Scott and his public safety director Shantay Jackson celebrated the findings Thursday as evidence of the “profound impact” Safe Streets has had on gun violence in its targeted neighborhoods.

“Safe Streets staff members work tirelessly and selflessly to mediate conflicts in our communities and encourage peace,” Jackson said in a statement. “Accordingly, these results would not be possible without their commitment to our city and fellow neighbors.

Still, the report released Thursday is more limited in scope than the city had once envisioned. When the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement first looked at commissioning a comprehensive Safe Streets evaluation, there were plans for University of Maryland researcher Joseph Richardson to partner with Webster by adding a qualitative component to the Hopkins academic’s data review.

Richardson said in an interview that his qualitative work would have brought more rigor to the assessment of Safe Streets, encompassing interviews with violence interruptors and the participants they support to better understand how violent crime is changing on the streets of Baltimore. Richardson also planned to do field research to develop a ground-level understanding of the city’s premier anti-violence program.

“People want their voices to be heard and that’s a critical piece that we do,” the University of Maryland researcher said. “We often neglect to lift up the voices of street outreach in our studies.”

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In a statement, Office of Neighborhood Safety spokesman Jack French said plans to partner with Richardson fell through because of contract differences between the city and the University of Maryland, as well as pandemic limitations on in-person focus groups. Moving forward, the office intends to ensure qualitative and quantitative external analyses of Safe Streets every two years.

Webster said it’s unfortunate that the review couldn’t encompass the on-the-ground field work that Richardson wanted to pursue, though he noted that one of his doctoral analysts is pursuing a similar qualitative assessment, part of the Hopkins team’s longer-range plans to evaluate violence intervention work in Baltimore.

Councilman Mark Conway, the chair of the City Council’s public safety committee, said he found the report to be helpful in quantifying the effect of the sites, how they worked, and what factors to consider when contemplating whether the program should be expanded.

Conway has taken a keen interest in Safe Streets in the past. Last fall, the committee chair called a hearing after finding out through media reports that the Office of Neighborhood Safety had consolidated the number of contracted groups running Safe Streets sites.

Of particular note to Conway was the report’s finding that some of the original Safe Streets sites showed declining effectiveness over the years, while the newer sites didn’t put the same dent into gun violence in their neighborhoods.

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In many cases, there have been changes in the administration of sites over the years, while evolving drivers of violent crime in Baltimore may mean that violence interruption no longer has the same influence it once did, the councilman speculated. He argued that research drawing on conversations with Safe Streets workers and the people they support will be important going forward.

“Numbers only get us so far,” said Conway. “We need the context behind those numbers to determine whether putting the time and money into expanding this program is going to yield the benefits we’ve seen in previous years.”

Webster said that some of the results suggesting declining effectiveness of Safe Streets sites is likely attributable to limitations in his methodology. But he agreed with Conway that there may also be some influence from changing criminal dynamics, on top of a wider range of other factors that have created a challenging environment for Safe Streets over the years, from surging violence in the wake of Freddie Gray’s 2015 death to more limited investments in the work from the city. His team is planning to further study the effectiveness of particular sites.

When Safe Streets nearly doubled in size under former Mayor Catherine Pugh, Webster noted, the city did not provide additional funding — a significant strain on the program and its anti-violence workers.

“Even under far from ideal circumstances, Safe Streets is able to show it can reduce gun violence,” he said. “What can we do if we really invest in it more? That’s where I think the conversation should be.”

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