A 16-year-old was shot to death in Annapolis over the summer.

The death of Robert Clark on a July night near his home in the Bywater neighborhood remains unsolved. It is a tragedy for those who knew and loved him, but also for Annapolis as a whole.

Maryland’s state capital is not an overly violent place, most days. There are about 11 shootings a year, with an average of one homicide every three months. Sometimes the pace is slower, sometimes faster. Eight people are dead so far this year, with three killed in one bloody night in June.

Most often it is a pernicious, little remarked-on kind of gun violence, spreading through the poorest neighborhoods and regularly killing young men — the victims and shooters are almost always young men — like Robert. It’s a disease.

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So, Annapolis and Anne Arundel County are launching an effort to treat it like one. This fall, the city and the Anne Arundel County Department of Health will select one neighborhood and one nonprofit for its first Cure Violence program.

If it works there, the cure could be repeated in other parts of the county where daily life involves a high risk of getting shot.

“It’s interpersonal violence, retaliation and those sorts of things,” said Tonii Gedin, the county’s health officer. “And that is the type of violence that Cure Violence, [with] their approach to violence interruption, can do something to cure.”

To choose a neighborhood, her agency has been talking with residents of three communities: Woodside Gardens, Homes at the Glen and Wilbourn Estates off Newtowne Drive; Eastport Terrace and Harbour House off President Street; and Bay Ridge Gardens on Bay Ridge Avenue. Each is home to several hundred people.

“We didn’t want to just put a program there if the residents didn’t want it,” said Peggy Cruz, director of family health services for the county health department.

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Announced in June, the $700,000 initiative is an outgrowth of a 2019 decision by Nilesh Kalyanaraman, the county health officer at the time, and County Executive Steuart Pittman to treat gun violence as a public health emergency. They set up the Anne Arundel County Gun Violence Prevention Task Force to study local gun violence after the 2018 mass shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom that killed five people.

The results included recommendations for passive steps. Last year, the county required gun shops to display information on suicide prevention resources. It survived a court challenge in March. Last month, the county library system expanded its pilot program offering free gun locks to all 15 branches.

This is different. Cure Violence will be the first active effort to prevent shootings. An international program established 20 years ago, Cure Violence Global trains staff at local sites to use techniques similar to those used in preventing the transmission of AIDS, cholera, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases.

“Violence interrupters” identify and mediate potentially lethal conflicts using conflict resolution strategies and follow up to make sure that the violence does not reignite.

After a shooting, they head into the community and the hospital where the victims are being treated to cool emotions and prevent retaliations — working with the victims, their friends and family, and anyone else connected with the event. Outreach workers link the community with services designed to address some of the root causes of violence.

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Representatives of Cure Violence Global diagnosed Annapolis to see if the model would work. In August 2022, it issued the results of a monthslong assessment of gun violence in Annapolis that identified the three neighborhoods suffering from the same circumstances found in the 50 U.S. and foreign locations where it runs programs.

All are home to gangs, crews or cliques involved in violence, all have a high level of poverty and social inequity. There is illegal drug activity and high levels of robbery and other crimes.

“They said all three neighborhoods are potentially suitable for a site and then how many they would recommend in any neighborhood,” Gedin said. “They walked around the neighborhoods and talked to folks. I was a part of those site visits.”

The prescription was expensive. A program covering all three areas would require up to 36 employees at two to four sites. The cost: $2.3 million each year.

Gedin said the health department opted instead to select one neighborhood for a test.

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“Instead of fully launching the program across the city of Annapolis, [we decided] to pilot a site and try to work out the kinks and figure out what it looks like in Anne Arundel County to have one of these programs,” Gedin said. “We’re going to be working it out and trying to learn something from its implementation.”

Once the neighborhood is selected, the department will put out a call for proposals from nonprofits. Cure Violence identified more than a dozen with a demonstrated commitment to the communities, familiarity with the consequences of gun violence and credibility among residents.

The nonprofit the county chooses and up to eight people hired will go through weeks of training before they begin providing services. Gedin said the site should open by the end of this year.

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During listening sessions this summer, lots of residents expressed interest but also concerns.

“The neighborhoods and residents are suffering from the amount of violence, and that is concerning,” Cruz said. “They would appreciate a presence in the neighborhood and lessons on how to diffuse the angst.”

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Some want assurances that conflict interrupters and outreach workers don’t become a conduit for information that leads straight to the police.

“This is why we really wanted to go with an evidence-based practice and individuals who’ve done both research and implementation in this area,” Gedin said. “In picking Cure Violence Global to be the organization to help lead us through this work, they have very specific training on how to handle those scenarios.”

More than anything, though, residents want this program to begin quickly and stick around if it works. Families in these communities, many of whom have lived there for generations, have seen good intentions fail and solutions come and go.

“My hope is that the agencies we’re trying to engage will actually assist in a timely fashion,” said Alderman Dajuan Gay, who represents the ward where all of the communities are located and who grew up in one of them. “Otherwise the community will lose trust in the process.”

In addition to initial training, Chicago-based Cure Violence Global will provide recruitment help, weekly meetings and quarterly assessments on progress. About $500,000 would go to the nonprofit, with the rest covering fees for Cure Violence Global and an additional health department employee to coordinate with the program.

Annapolis neighborhoods not considered for the program included Bywater, where Robert Clark died, and Robinwood. Bywater is a small townhouse community on Copeland Street. Although Robinwood suffers from many of the same circumstances as the other three, it has a program set up by the city.

The No Harm violence intervention program is run by Adetola Ajayi, the African American community services specialist in the mayor’s office. Since late last year, he and a small group of workers who grew up in the neighborhood have held a number of meetings and events.

If the health department determines Cure Violence is a success, more money will be needed for a second year and even more for expansion. Gedin said there is no guarantee that Annapolis would get a second site over another part of the county with the same problems.

Gay, who attended the summer meetings, said commitment will be the key to success.

And success is nothing less than ending the long-running Annapolis tragedy of deaths like Robert Clark’s.

“It will be effective if we’re all consistent,” Gay said. “We’d need steady (funding) from the county and a liaison from the city to work with this group.”

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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