January 23, 2012

Safe Streets Baltimore is reducing gun violence

A public health initiative launched in four historically violent neighborhoods in Baltimore City effectively reduced gun violence in three of those neighborhoods, according to a new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study is slated for publication in a future edition of the Journal of Urban Health. The authors have received permission from the journal to release the findings in advance of publication.

Safe Streets Baltimore was launched by the Baltimore City Health Department in 2007 as a replication of Chicago’s CeaseFire program. The evidence-based public health initiative targets high-risk youth ages 14 to 25 and employs and trains outreach professionals to de-escalate and mediate disputes that might otherwise result in serious violence. Staff serve as positive role models and direct youth toward services and opportunities to live productive, violence-free lives. In addition, staff work to mobilize neighborhoods to promote nonviolence.

From July 2007 through December 2010, outreach staff mediated 276 disputes, ranging from one to four mediations per month in each of the four neighborhoods where the program was implemented. The vast majority of these disputes involved situations where the risk of gun violence was high, such as disputes between armed gang members. Outreach workers in each site were working closely with 35 to 60 high-risk youth at any given time. Safe Streets Baltimore also held monthly events to promote nonviolent alternatives to resolving conflicts. These events typically attracted between 100 and 200 people.

The Johns Hopkins researchers also identified specific programmatic factors related to success in reducing violence.

“The results suggest that the number of conflicts mediated by the outreach workers was associated with greater program impact on homicides,” said Daniel Webster, lead author of the study and deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.

Other key findings of the study include:

• In all four neighborhoods—McElderry Park, Elwood Park, Madison-Eastend and Cherry Hill—the program was associated with a statistically significant decline in homicides, nonfatal shootings or both.

• Overall, researchers estimated that the program prevented at least five homicide incidents and 35 nonfatal shooting incidents. Had there not been increases in homicides following program implementation in Madison-Eastend and a neighborhood bordering Elwood Park that were likely unrelated to the program, Safe Streets is estimated to have prevented 15 homicides in four of the most violent neighborhoods in Baltimore.

• In the South Baltimore neighborhood of Cherry Hill, the program was associated with a 56 percent decline in homicides and a 34 percent decline in nonfatal shootings.

• In Elwood Park, the program was associated with a 34 percent drop in nonfatal shootings.

• Researchers estimated that Safe Streets Baltimore was responsible for a 26 percent reduction in homicides in McElderry Park over the nearly three and a half years the program was in place. This site did not experience a homicide during the first 23 months of program implementation.

“Safe Streets is an important component of our citywide strategy to reduce homicides and gun violence, and a key to our plans to grow the city,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. “By expanding this effective initiative, we help people build social capital and empower communities.”

Oxiris Barbot, the city’s commissioner of health, said, “This study demonstrates clearly that a public health intervention can be a successful means for reducing youth violence. Thanks to the recent award from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, we are excited to expand this program to other communities and extend our message that gun violence is not acceptable.”

The study was funded primarily through a grant to Johns Hopkins from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s designated Academic Centers of Excellence in the prevention of youth violence.

Linda C. Degutis, director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said, “The CDC has long recognized that violence is an important public health problem that can be prevented through the application of evidence-based programs. This type of research evaluating the effectiveness of community-based strategies has tremendous potential for informing the efforts of communities across the United States looking to prevent youth violence.”

The annual cost of operating a Safe Streets Baltimore site is approximately $375,000. The program is currently located in two communities, McElderry Park and Cherry Hill, but funding for these sites ends in June. The Health Department says it will use these positive evaluation results to seek additional funding for sustaining these sites.