When a Baltimore Safe Streets worker gets killed on the job, men and women show up to remember them.
On January 22, a bitterly cold day, they came from all over the city: the Franklin Square and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods on the city’s west side. Brooklyn in South Baltimore. Cherry Hill and McElderry Park, the two sites where Safe Streets workers, who mediate disputes before they turn deadly, were killed in 2021.
They huddled along Monument Street outside the McElderry Park office to remember DaShawn McGrier, three days after the 29-year-old was gunned down alongside close friends in a triple homicide. McGrier had only recently started working with Safe Streets. At the memorial, Dante Johnson, site director for the Belair-Edison neighborhood, stopped and flicked on a bullhorn. “What do we want?” Johnson barked. “Safe streets!,” the crowd responded. “When do we want it?” “Now!”
The work to make Baltimore safe comes at a cost, a human toll. Safe Streets paid more than its share of that toll in the last year, and some people are asking a fundamental question about an approach that puts its staff directly in harm’s way: Is it worth it?
The mourners marched down Monument Street in near syncopation, toward the spot about a block away where McGrier, Hassan Smith, 24, and Tyrone Allen, 28, had been killed. (A fourth man was injured but is expected to recover.)
As Johnson led the brief march, he repeated the Safe Streets mantra: “Stop shooting, start living.” The crowd gathered in front of a podium erected a few feet from the site of the shooting, the exact spot adorned with balloons.
Daniel Webster, whose life work has been about reducing gun violence, shook his head. “Something has changed out there,” said Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. “It used to be that no one would dare shoot at a Safe Streets worker. These guys, to be honest, were viewed as the toughest guys on the street.”
Since 2015, Baltimore has eclipsed 300 homicides each year. As the shootings continue to claim lives, Safe Streets workers are no longer being spared. In January 2021, Dante Barksdale, who worked out of the McElderry Park Safe Streets site, was visiting the nearby Frederick Douglass housing complex to hand out winter coats. Days later, he was killed there, a place where he had routinely worked to quash conflicts.
Barksdale was a close friend of Mayor Brandon Scott, and his murder came to define much of Scott’s first year in office. Baltimore needed to be ambitious in its approach to reducing violence. Scott took on that challenge, declaring in 2021 that the city would reduce the number of shootings by 15 percent each year for the next five years. But a few months after Barksdale was shot, Kenyell Wilson was killed while returning from lunch near the Cherry Hill office in July. Since then, Baltimore Police Department data show, shootings — both fatal and nonfatal — have continued at a similar rate.
McGrier’s death in 2022 came almost a year to the day after Barksdale’s murder, in the middle of the most violent January in Baltimore in a decade; 36 people were killed in the city in the first month of 2022.
“It’s not that workers have not been shot on the job,” said Webster, the criminologist. “But it is unusual to have three in one year. That is alarming, and in my opinion, calls for a step back and asking the question: What are we doing?”
“The city doesn’t have a pulse on what’s going on at the sites,” said Joseph Richardson, a University of Maryland anthropologist who is studying Safe Streets. “You have had three people killed. You might want to pump the brakes.” Since Richardson began studying Safe Streets in 2021, he has come to wonder whether the model needs to be adjusted to fit the changing realities of street violence. He is also looking to see if there is a disconnect between how City Hall views Safe Streets violence interruption and how those workers are seen in neighborhoods across Baltimore.
Violence, in his opinion, is usually personal, and some Safe Streets workers may still be tied closely to disputes that can boil over. “Is it that some Safe Streets workers are still involved in the streets, or do they have histories in the streets they can’t quite outrun?” Richardson said.
Even inside City Hall, some agree the codes that once served as informal governance over the streets have eroded. The situation might make it tougher for Scott to deliver a safer Baltimore without resorting to the heavy policing that defined previous administrations. But at McGrier’s memorial, Scott showed no signs of backing away. “Should the mayor shut down Safe Streets?” he asked rhetorically. The crowd yelled back, “Hell no!” And, as the 37-year-old mayor often does, Scott parsed a rap lyric from Jay-Z to underscore that Safe Streets would remain a central part of his plan to reduce violence: “Jay-Z said it best: Women lie, men lie, numbers don’t.”
He reminded residents of the organization’s track record: “We know that they produce each and every day.”
Safe Streets has successfully mediated 99 conflicts that otherwise would have turned violent and even deadly, according to Shantay Jackson, who directs the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.
Still, Scott’s office is working toward one reform that its staff says will be pivotal: a change in Maryland law that would allow violence interruption workers to wear bulletproof vests while working. Maryland law requires someone with a felony drug or violent crime conviction to get permission from the state secretary of police to possess and wear a bulletproof vest. Many Safe Streets workers have previous felony convictions. Under federal law, former felons can wear the vests only if their employer requires it.
“In two or three of these cases, we had our workers shot in the torso. If they had a bulletproof vest, they would have survived,” Jackson said. She wrote a letter asking the state to make an exception for violence interrupters.
It’s not her first attempt. In 2019, as a Safe Streets site administrator, Jackson said, “I brought [the idea] to City Hall and was told it couldn’t happen.”
Even if the city convinces the state to allow Safe Streets workers to wear bulletproof vests, there is some reluctance among the workers, who need to seem credible to the young people whose conflicts they try to resolve. Wearing a bulletproof vest risks the appearance of no longer looking like a guy those young people can trust. “A lot of guys feel like wearing a vest will make them look like the police,” said Al Fluker, who runs the site in McElderry Park where McGrier worked.
Safe Streets launched in Baltimore in 2007, during a period that residents and politicians alike now remember as one of relative peace. Unconstitutional police practices and officer malfeasance bubbled just underneath the surface, though, and the city was beginning to adopt alternatives to traditional policing to slow the pace of homicides. For several years, it seemed that Safe Streets and other violence interruption programs were working. Homicides were dropping, nonfatal shootings were sliding, and the type of shooting in which a corner is flooded with bullets — known as “spin the bin,” the kind that took the lives of McGrier and his two friends — was rare.
From 2007 to 2014, Baltimore experienced 88 shootings with more than one victim. In the last seven years, the number of multiple-victim shootings more than doubled to 190. The emergence of “spin the bin” shootings marked a change in “the culture of violence in Baltimore,” said Rashad Singletary, director of gun violence prevention at the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and a former Safe Streets site director.
The target on January 19 was a man McGrier was trying to help. The shooters fired indiscriminately on the corner where McGrier stood. “In 2013, if you saw a Safe Streets jacket on a corner, you would not shoot. Even if you had the target on the corner, you would not shoot,” Singletary said. “It doesn’t matter who is on the corner now.”
Al Fluker arrived at Safe Streets well aware of the program’s reputation for stopping violence, and also of the danger his staff faced each day. But he had only been on the job three months when he had to bury one of his employees. He remembered McGrier as a young man with great ideas and a strong work ethic. “DaShawn went to welding school in the daytime and worked at Safe Streets at night,” Fluker said. “I wish there was a way I could ensure my guys’ safety, but I am not sure there is.”
Safe Streets workers charge headlong into dangerous scenarios, and do so often. “You are going to find the highest-risk individuals, and you are going to reach them in the highest-risk circumstances, where you know that guns and people with a history of violence are going to be part of that milieu, and that’s going to be a part of your job description,” Webster said. “Tell me how you don’t expect workers to be in great danger.”
Like many cities, Baltimore has a patchwork of community-based violence interrupters. Roca deals with some of the most dangerous young men and women from the age of 16 to 24; Youth Advocate Program, or YAP, is a similar initiative aimed at a slightly older population. What neither program does is send workers into situations where they know a person is going to be armed and likely to shoot. “Before we go to a neighborhood, we are gathering information to make sure our guys are safe,” said Kurt Palermo, director of Roca Baltimore. “For the most part, if there is an uptick in violence, then we may feel like we shouldn’t be going to a neighborhood.”
Safe Streets operates on the apparent opposite end of the violence interruption spectrum. For the program to work, it has to approach those in conflict at the time of the beef. Word of a conflict is not a time to back away, but rather the key moment to intervene.
And in order to maintain credibility and build trust with the people they’re trying to help, Safe Streets also does not work with the police.
Richardson, the anthropologist, questions the entire credible messenger model. “Baltimore is really close-knit,” he said. “If you are hustling and you have a reputation for hustling and people know you, and if you are one foot in, one foot out, people are going to know that.”
He also questions whether placing those who have been traumatized from close proximity to violence could further harm them — and if Safe Streets needs to consider how long a violence interrupter can reasonably endure this type of work. Richardson and Webster are studying the program at sites in West Baltimore to find answers, and the city plans to roll out a program in the coming weeks to address the interrupters’ trauma. Meanwhile, Safe Streets workers continue to try to stop shootings before they happen by stepping into the middle of conflicts.
“They are willing to put their life on the line to resolve conflict so someone else doesn’t die,” Fluker said. “And that takes a special individual to say, ‘I am willing to risk my life to save a life.’”