Dante Barksdale was a Safe Streets violence interrupter. Like the other “credible messengers” whom the program relies on, the 46-year-old Barksdale knew the streets of Baltimore. He was raised in Lafayette Courts in East Baltimore, in the shadow of Johns Hopkins University. As a young man, he scratched out a living as a corner boy, selling drugs during the era when heroin and crack struck a double blow to the city.
Barksdale — or “Tater” as his family and close friends called him — was a people person. He knew everyone on the street: the dealers, the shot callers, the mothers out with their children, and even the shooters who in a split second could end a life. By 2008, years after he left the corner and became an outreach worker, his favorite line was “go deeper.” There was much more to the violence in Baltimore than guns and drugs, he argued. If Baltimore wanted to end the crisis, the answer had to include more than cops and arrests.
During the initial days of Safe Streets, in the early 2000s, Barksdale began to press the other young activists on what was required to make change in Baltimore. Through that, he met Brandon Scott, who was building his own grassroots anti-violence organization, 300 Men March, and was a liaison for then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. This past November, Scott, who is now 36, was elected mayor on a platform to treat gun violence as a public health crisis. Scott’s efforts — his reimagining of public safety and treating violence — come with a dash of Dante Barksdale’s “go deeper” mantra. During an online event on January 18, Scott recalled his early meetings with Barksdale: “He didn’t want any of us to get comfortable in this work because there is so much work to be done.”
For two decades, the city’s efforts to reduce violence have been marked by temporary improvements followed by retreat. Scott thinks his predecessors’ failures lie mostly in a blinkered approach to gun violence: They thought public safety was either a cop problem or a street outreach worker problem. The truth, in Scott’s mind, is that it isn’t just cops or street outreach. The trick is to get the two sides to work together. In an interview with The Trace, Scott repeated something he often said during the campaign: “There has been no overarching public safety plan in Baltimore city. There has been no coordination.”
For Scott to deploy a public health strategy in a city where 335 people were killed in 2020, and 3,877 lives have been taken since 2007, the city must first start with a diagnosis. Baltimore’s leaders need to figure out what, precisely, is driving the violence. They need to ask why — despite its massive outlays for law enforcement, and repeated efforts during the tenures of four mayors and seven police commissioners — they haven’t been able to consistently keep violent crime in check. Scott wants to make every city department — housing, health, parks, employment, and beyond — responsible for thinking about how to make Baltimore safer.
Soon after he took office, Scott convened a 20-person task force and gave it a name: Reimagining Public Safety and Public Accountability. The composition of the task force spoke both to his vision and to the politics of crime control in 2021: Half of the team was drawn from Baltimore’s activist community. Dante Barksdale joined Erricka Bridgeford from Operation Ceasefire 365, which works to mediate conflicts and advocates for peace, and Daniel Webster, from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Leonard Hamm, the former Baltimore police commissioner, was the lone cop on the committee. The signal from Scott was clear: Yes, police would still be charged with arresting the most violent players, but Baltimore wouldn’t lean solely on its massive police force — the second biggest, per capita, in the nation — to reduce gun violence.
Two weeks before Scott planned to roll out his public safety strategy, Barksdale was in Douglass Homes, a housing project one block from where he was raised in Lafayette Courts. Douglass had become Barksdale’s second home after Lafayette Courts was demolished on live television in 1995, as part of the federally funded drive to eliminate public housing complexes that had become associated with violence and crime.
In recent years, Barksdale had become a fixture in Douglass. He settled disputes in the projects and in December handed out toys and winter coats.
Just before noon on January 17, Barksdale was shot in the head at close range in a courtyard between the Douglass buildings. An ambulance rushed him to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The violence that Dante Barksdale was trying to stop had taken his life.
Anthony Barksdale is a cop’s cop. Ask him about police tactics, and he quickly falls back on police jargon. “It’s just cops on dots,” he said when we met on a late fall day to talk about policing and began to discuss “hot-spot policing,” the practice of flooding high crime areas with more officers.
Though he shares a last name with Dante Barksdale, they are not related. And if Dante Barksdale knew the ingredients behind Baltimore’s violence formula, the beefs and the conflicts that drove the violence, Anthony Barksdale knew how to cook up a policing strategy to combat them. Where Dante would ask the city to “go deeper” on violent crime, Anthony had his own formulation: “Constitutionally subtract the most violent offenders from the community.” The line is Anthony Barksdale’s way of saying the job of making Baltimore safer belongs to the cops, and it also speaks to the deep belief the veteran cop has in a department which has a reputation for using unlawful and unconstitutional tactics.
Anthony Barksdale spent 25 years on the force, from 1987 to 2012, and for the last five he was deputy commissioner of operations. That meant that while the mayor gave speeches, and the police commissioner held press conferences, Barksdale executed the city’s crime plan. In 2007, shortly after Sheila Dixon became mayor, violence began spiking, with homicides on pace to eclipse 300 in a single year, a figure the city hadn’t seen since the 1990s.
Under Dixon’s predecessor, Martin O’Malley, the city had a carrot-and-stick strategy in place for reducing shootings. The strategy started by connecting individual incidents of violence with the larger, often loosely knit groups responsible. Those group members were given two options: stop their criminal behavior and accept services, from housing to job training to counseling (the carrot), or continue their criminal behavior and face penalties (the stick).
David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a pioneer of the focused-deterrence model for reducing shootings, cautioned that focused deterrence takes time to work. But the incremental progress frustrated O’Malley, who was more concerned with shutting down the open-air drug markets that flourished in parts of the city. O’Malley’s political profile was also on the rise. He had his sights on the state capitol in Annapolis, and reducing crime would only bolster his chances of becoming governor. Plus, federal law enforcement withdrew support for Kennedy’s work in Baltimore, worried that his strategy would fail. Kennedy recalled in his memoir “Don’t Shoot,” that during one meeting, the mayor ignored him and read his mail. Kennedy left the city frustrated with the lack of political support for his program, and O’Malley turned decisively to Broken Windows policing — in which cops focus on minor infractions to assert control over the city. The approach fell heavily on the city’s Black residents.
When Dixon took office, she wanted to handle things differently. She called Anthony Barksdale to a meeting at a restaurant in Baltimore’s Little Italy in the spring of 2007. Seated in a booth, Dixon pleaded with Barksdale to stop the killings. The former school teacher told the veteran cop that those were “her kids out there dying.” She set a marker: Get homicides back under 300 for the year. “The number became a symbol of whether we were winning or losing the crime fight in Baltimore,” Barskdale recalled recently.
What Dixon wouldn’t back was a repeat of the O’Malley years, when the department ran roughshod over the city. She wanted the “constitutional subtraction” that Barksdale still talks about to this day — a precise approach meant to get the most dangerous offenders out of the community, without resorting to mass arrests or excessive stops and searches. Barksdale worked with the U.S. Attorney to build cases against the shooters and the kingpins who called for killings. In what now looks like a more controversial move, he deployed plainclothes units throughout the city — and Baltimore finished 2007 with 282 homicides.
“Two-thousand-and-seven was the only year when Baltimore was on [track for] a 300 homicide rate and didn’t reach 300 homicides,” he said recently. The following year homicides dipped even lower, to 234.
Policing wasn’t the only strategy Dixon pursued. Under her watch, Safe Streets launched in Baltimore. The program’s team of credible messengers, including Dante Barksdale, began working to diffuse tensions on the streets. By 2008, he had met with Daniel Webster to ask what he could do about gun violence. “He said to me, ‘I want to do what you do,’” Webster recalled. Flattering, yes, but Dante Barksdale had a gift. He knew people, could talk to people, and was able to go places that Webster, a white academic, could not go.
The Barksdale name had been made doubly famous by his uncle Nathan Avon “Bodie” Barksdale, whose life partly inspired the character of Avon Barksdale on The Wire. Dante told people that his own life mirrored that of the character D’Angelo Barksdale. Both were corner boys who yearned for a life beyond the street. This was a powerful message to deploy in Baltimore. “He was trying to work miracles out there,” Webster said. And for a time, it worked.
Under Dixon, Baltimore had a double-pronged approach to public safety. The cops worked cases, made arrests, and tried to get the most violent offenders off the street. A public health strategy, aimed at treating the trauma and conditions driving the violence, began to emerge. The combined strategy began to show signs it was working, even as law enforcement and public health officials did little to work together.
By 2011, homicides in the city dropped to 197, the lowest in decades. In local policing and political circles, the period is still referenced as a bright point in the fight against violent crime. Anthony Barksdale brags about it. Sheila Dixon, who was forced out of office in 2010 after being convicted for embezzlement, made the decrease in crime the cornerstone of her mayoral campaigns in 2016 and 2020.
But the victory was temporary. In that restaurant booth where Dixon appealed to Anthony Barskdale to slow the pace of homicides, she failed to make one request of the deputy commissioner. She never asked him to support Safe Streets or other non-law enforcement strategies to fight violence. Anthony Barksdale never bought into the public health responses backed by Dixon. He saw them as feel-good policies that did little to reduce crime — and, in fact, coddled the suspected criminals he wanted to arrest. In many cases, he acknowledged recently, he undermined those very efforts. “My thinking is, if you are bad enough to draw the attention of people like Safe Streets, then [the police] need to focus on you,” he says now. “You created crimes bad enough that we needed to solve them.”
Barksdale knew the neighborhoods where Safe Streets operated, and he deployed detectives to those areas to surveil and track those in the program. They would attend check-ins with young men close to street violence and then trail the clients after meetings. The department used information it collected to make criminal cases. To the veteran cop, he was solving crime and reducing murders, whereas Safe Streets and programs like it were really about politics. Could it work? Maybe, but only after the homicide rate was already cut down dramatically. Until then, “outreach work and other community-led interventions felt good, but when you got a killer running around, I don’t give a shit about that.”
Earlier efforts to create a public health response to gun violence faced bureaucratic obstacles. Dante Barksdale and James Timpson, then a violence interrupter at Safe Streets, would identify people in need of services, only to have those services never materialize. “When the need was identified, and guys would come back, the resources were not there,” Timpson said. “We would have meetings with people in need of housing,” for example, but “the city never followed up.”
In 2014, under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the city brought focused deterrence back. But she grew impatient, as well. Rawlings-Blake wanted to know in real time who was behind the homicides, the majority of which police never solve. “Every time an incident that would occur, the mayor would call and ask: What’s the status of this shooting? Is this tied to one of the groups we identified?” said Levar Michael, who ran the program. “There would be a shooting, and we would try to tie it back and we kept getting nothing.”
Michael resigned in 2015, after the public release of a memo he sent to city officials complaining that the city never provided proper funding and was more interested in locking people up than helping them. “On the stick side, we had resources. But on the carrot side, we didn’t,” he says. “You can’t hand clients a flier and say, ‘Go down to this center and talk to a caseworker,’ and then the caseworker can’t help them.”
Funding has been a recurring obstacle to success for Baltimore’s violence intervention programs. “Baltimore always approaches violence reduction programs in the same way,” Webster says. “Doing it on the cheap.”
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Police Department’s behavior toward Black and Latino residents has sometimes directly contributed to the violence the force was supposed to quell. In April 2015, a young Baltimore man was apprehended for glancing too hard at the police. Officers gave Freddie Gray a so-called rough ride that severed his spine, and he died days later in the hospital. In the month following the unrest, violence surged: Forty-three killings in 31 days, the most in a single month in 25 years.
Rawlings-Blake couldn’t be found when national news outlets were broadcasting a CVS burning. By year’s end, homicides were up 62 percent over the previous year. Under national scrutiny, the Department of Justice conducted a review of the Police Department and placed it under a federal consent decree. It was the same plainclothes officers Anthony Barksdale deployed in 2007 who were involved in many of the allegations of unconstitutional policing. The Violent Crime Impact Division made sweeping arrests for minor crimes and bragged about its harsh tactics. In one arrest, a man was taken into custody and led to a transport vehicle with the words “VCID: Striking fear into loiters [sic] City-wide” written on the side. Anthony Barksdale had retired by the time VCID began a more aggressive style of policing, but he still supports plainclothes units. “If you want to bring down crime in Baltimore, you need plainclothes detectives,” he says.
During the uprising, 300 Men March, co-founded by Brandon Scott, patrolled Baltimore, trying to stop the city from tearing itself apart. By that time, Scott was on the City Council as a progressive. His election in 2011 made him the second youngest city councilperson in Baltimore history. And he made clear his ambitions, telling Baltimore City Paper in 2014: “Ten years from now, hopefully, I’ll be the mayor.” That dream came true sooner than expected, and on the heels of an unprecedented crime wave. The cycles of killing that began in 2015 have still not abated, and the debate over how to finally, sustainably reduce violence has continued.
Scott’s roots in activism help explain the half of his agenda focused on ways to reduce violence beyond prisons and police. But there is a strong sense of pragmatism running through the young mayor. He has not aligned himself with the young activists calling for abolition of the police, and his own flirtations with reducing the Police Department’s budget are about reining in spending in a cash-strapped city. As the “defund the police” movement grew louder in the summer of 2020, Scott — then president of the City Council — capitalized on the political moment to push for a budget that trimmed $22 million from the department’s $550 million budget.
In building his plan, Scott has borrowed from Dixon’s, which was the last to produce a significant decrease in crime. He supports the gun offender registry first rolled out under Dixon, which requires those arrested for illegal handgun possession to register with the Police Department and be subject to random check-ins with officers. The registry has come under fire — a city circuit judge called it “unconstitutionally vague and awfully broad” — but was upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals in March 2013. In January 2020, Scott pushed to expand the registry to include people convicted of making straw purchases for those who could not legally buy a gun.
Like Dixon, Scott wants to do two things at the same time — arrest the most violent offenders in the city and attend to the trauma that drives the next generation of young men to pull a trigger. Unlike his predecessors, he sees this as a full-government effort, and wants to make every city department work with violence interrupters.
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Scott’s plan — which was released in the second week of February — calls on the city to help organizations like Safe Streets expand from a handful of sites to work across the entire city. And he wants to give those groups access to resources from every department in City Hall, from housing to employment, health to addiction services.
In the old paradigm, a person contacted by Safe Streets might wait for weeks or months to receive the housing support they need. Under Scott’s plan, each department in the city will be responsible for contributing to the plan to address the most violent sections of Baltimore, and the residents most in need of services. So in the area around Sandtown-Winchester — where Freddie Gray lived and died — the neighborhood won’t just get more police and violence interrupters to address shootings, but help with housing, employment, job training, and mental health services. Violence interrupters will be able to bring their clients’ needs to the attention of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which can coordinate with departments across the city to deliver service.
Anthony Barksdale may still be critical of Safe Streets, and the homicide rate may be stubbornly high, but that’s no evidence that non-law enforcement strategies don’t work, according to Scott. “The city failed twice in implementing group violence intervention because they had sticks and no carrots,” Scott says. But Scott still hasn’t committed any money to those “carrots.”
“A verbal commitment is one thing, but a commitment of actual action and resources is another thing,” Timpson said, before noting his optimism: “For once I think we will see an administration that is committed.”
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But perhaps the biggest difference between Scott’s plan and his predecessors’ is that he will incorporate the Police Department into his public health strategy. Under Dixon and Rawlings-Blake, public health and law enforcement worked in separate silos and were often at odds. Scott is forcing the two sides to talk with each other. He is also resurrecting the Strategic Decision Support Centers, where cops, prosecutors, and state prosecutors work together to reduce violence. Scott shelved the centers last summer after questions surfaced as to whether data gathered from the centers was being shared with the city. For them to work, the police must share information with street outreach workers about who might be close to violence and in need of services, and the violence interrupters must be given the latitude to diffuse beefs without the fear that the police will use the program to make arrests in the way Anthony Barksdale did a decade ago. “The centers should be run and operated not as a strategy for law enforcement,” Webster said, “but they should be thought of more holistically to identify risk and deploy resources beyond law enforcement.”
At the same time, in reserving a prominent role for the Baltimore Police, Scott is banking on the good behavior of a department that remains under federal consent decree and faces a crisis of credibility with residents. The Gun Trace Task Force scandal — in which a crew of cops assigned to rid the streets of guns instead used their wide-ranging powers to rob suspected drug dealers — provides a searing example of what could go awry. Can the department, given its track record, hew to a blueprint that calls for it to defer to street outreach workers in certain circumstances and refrain from mass arrests? Scott insists it will. “I know the agency at its core wants to reform,” he said. “As the mayor, I determine what the agency will do. This agency will reform.”
On January 28, Scott announced that the Baltimore Police will be stepping up law enforcement at violent hot spots throughout the city. “BPD cannot be everywhere at once. This is about quality over quantity, and ensuring accurate, up-to-date data informs our deployment strategy,” Scott said in a statement. While his remarks focused on operational efficiency, politics may also have informed the initiative. Notably, the move came a month after the local Fraternal Order of Police had tweeted that the department is understaffed and under-resourced in the fight against crime.
Scott’s plan reads less like a bill and more like a manifesto. It’s a vision for how to engage in the fight against violent crime. Building an actual infrastructure will be much more difficult. “We all want to snap our fingers and, ‘Wow. We have a new system and we are invested in violence prevention,’” Webster says. He hopes everyone will keep in mind that “we have been doing this as a demonstration project and not building this as a system — a public safety system — that doesn’t rely on law enforcement and prisons.”
Scott’s plan doesn’t have any funding, at least through the end of June. After that, he will have more control over how the city spends its money. Nonetheless, the lack of financial detail in his plan has brought little criticism, even from former political rivals. “At this point, I don’t want to be a critic of the first 100 days,” says T.J. Smith, a former candidate for mayor, who once served as the spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department. But Smith says the day will come when Scott’s plan will need to show results. “People in Baltimore are eventually going to ask, ‘Are these things going to come to fruition, or is it words on paper?’”
In Scott’s plan to fight gun violence, the city’s Dante Barksdales play a central role. Street intervention workers will serve as the public face for Scott for the neighborhoods in Baltimore most affected by violence. Places where Dante Barskdale’s killing is still reverberating. “What happened put us in a crisis because Dante is an irreplaceable voice,” said Timpson, now a street intervention worker with Roca-Baltimore and a member of the public safety task force. “I felt a sense of defeat, and it was overwhelming.”
Scott held an online vigil for Barksdale on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Scott said he was shaken by the death of his “big brother.”
“I ask everyone in [Dante Barksdale’s] honor to recommit ourselves to his work,” Scott said. As the vigil came to the end, a shot of Baltimore City Hall filled the screen. Scott had ordered the dome of the 145-year-old neo-Baroque building lit up in orange, the color of Safe Streets.
Dante Barksdale’s death was the tenth of 27 homicides in January. At the current pace, Baltimore will record 300 homicides for the seventh straight year — and Scott will be pushed to lean on the city’s police department to stem the tide. “There is a pressure there. The bottom line is we can’t keep singing the same song next year and the year after when it comes to the homicide rate,” Dixon told The Trace.
On a bitter cold day, a few dozen people gathered in a courtyard in Douglass Homes. Orange and black graffiti marked the spot where Dante Barksdale had been killed a week earlier. The surrounding square of grass and trees was filled with macabre reminders of the toll of city homicides. Four spots in a courtyard less than 100 yards long and half as wide marked four separate deaths.
Safe Streets workers from as far away as New York City converged on the spot to pay their tributes. As the crowd endured the cold, people offered words of inspiration for the work that lies ahead. Menelik Hannibal was among those whose lives Barksdale had touched. In a city struggling for peace, he reminded the crowd of the weight of the tragedy, and how this loss of life could be an inflection point for transformation. Hannibal offered the grieving activists and city officials a touchpoint to focus their efforts during the months and years ahead: “Start with what breaks your heart.”