"This is a bad neighborhood," the cabdriver tells me as we pull up to an ugly, beige, low-rise building in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Lower Park Heights. The dappled sunlight on the tree-lined street belies the fact that this area has one of highest per capita crime rates in Baltimore.
There are bars on the steel door entrance to the building and a keypad lock. It looks like a deserted prison. I'm relieved when the door opens before I exit the cab and a middle-aged guy with an ID tag emerges talking on his phone. He waves to me, and I realize he is Michael Schwartzberg, the public information officer for Baltimore's Health Department.
Schwartzberg has set up interviews for me with convicted criminals, but we aren't meeting at a prison. We're meeting in the headquarters of Park Heights Safe Streets. The ex-cons are two of their trusted staff members.
Prosaically typecast, they are both wearing bright-orange shirts.
One staffer, Greg Marshburn, was in and out of prison over a period of 17 years for a number of crimes, including attempted murder and robbery. He has been shot four times and stabbed at least 20. He was asked to be a witness after one of the shootings but refused to identify his attackers. "I let the guys go because I was robbing them," he explains. "To me, that was my civic duty."
Marshburn's current job makes use of his old contacts and his street cred, which is bolstered by the attempted-murder charge and his unwillingness to rat out his assailants. He is a supervisor at Safe Streets, one of a small staff of black men who canvass the neighborhood like beat cops.
But they are in no way police. The Safe Streets men are unarmed and work among gun-toting gangs without protective gear. They don't care if you're selling drugs or doing drugs. Their message is simple: Just don't shoot anybody.
Safe Streets in Baltimore is one of a half-dozen operations in inner cities throughout the country set up by Cure Violence, a nonprofit founded in 1995 by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin that applies the tenets of disease eradication to reducing shootings and homicides. The premise of Cure Violence is that violence clusters and spreads like an epidemic virus, and it can be stopped the same way an epidemic is stopped—by intervening at the source, reducing risk for those at highest risk, and changing community norms.
The genius of Cure Violence lies in its targeted, almost clinical approach to reducing shootings, assaults, and homicides. The group sees incidents of violence much the same as cases of HIV, tuberculosis, or even Ebola are viewed. Violence spreads when people are infected with it. It stops when those exposed to it stop infecting others.
Cure Violence aims its interventions at the worst places. In Baltimore, neighborhoods must fall within the top quartile of nonfatal shootings and firearms homicides to qualify to become a Safe Streets site. Even in those designated spots, public-health workers won't attempt to make inroads unless a service organization within that community steps up and agrees to host the Cure Violence program.
The model depends on community buy-in for its success, a factor that political scientists say is the most important component of any type of civic engagement. Cure Violence's methods are designed to turn violent neighborhoods inside out by recruiting their own residents—including, at times, convicted criminals—to make the initial turnaround efforts. The only automatic disqualification for employment with Cure Violence is a history of domestic violence or child abuse.
Marshburn and his colleagues are "trusted insiders" who know enough about their neighborhood to anticipate where violence might occur and intervene. They spend each eight-hour shift walking their assigned streets to "find out what's going on." If a guy on one corner has a beef with another guy on another corner, Marshburn and his co-workers figure out who among them knows the two individuals the best. Who is most trusted? If none of them know the parties very well, they look for a trusted third party, often a mother or a grandmother. They talk to each person individually. They persuade them to back off. They call back the next day.
"You twist it. You say, 'You going to shoot that guy because he stole $130 of drugs? Christmas is around the corner. Who's going to be Santa?' " says Dante Barksdale, the outreach coordinator for Safe Streets.
(Barksdale, by the way, is the other former convict present at my interview. He spent eight years in prison for dealing bad heroin. And if his name sounds familiar, yes, he is the nephew of former drug kingpin Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale, an inspiration for Avon Barksdale, a character in the HBO series The Wire.)
"I go as far as saying, 'Who's going to raise your kids?' " Marshburn adds.
Site director James Timpson offers up another motivation directed specifically at the dealers. "If you want to make the block too hot, ain't nobody can make any money." (Timpson grew up in the neighborhood, but he credits his unusual jail-less past to his parents, who sent him to boarding school when he was a teenager.)
It's now clear why these guys aren't cops. They are willing to look the other way on drug dealing and other petty crime as long the violence stays at bay. Trust in the neighborhood is the most important job qualification for these "violence interrupters." The number 1 rule on the street is, "Don't be a rat," Marshburn says. Guys who have been seen talking to the police, even if the context is unknown, are already viewed suspiciously and are not capable of forming the relationships necessary to persuade potentially violent people to hold off. If they were ever a witness in a prosecution, forget it.
Marshburn got his referral to Safe Streets about a year ago from another site director whom he met in jail. He had just finished his most recent trip to rehab for a heroin addiction and called up his buddy. "He said, 'Man, I been looking for you,' " Marshburn says. " 'I got an opportunity.' "
Marshburn wasn't going to say no to anything that meant clean money, no matter how crazy it sounded. He started at Safe Streets as a volunteer, walking his assigned blocks and making connections. He was carefully vetted by a team of health professionals and neighborhood leaders to see if he had a good reputation and was able to handle conflict resolution. Could he talk an angry person bent on retaliation down? Could he persuade high-risk individuals to let Safe Streets staffers keep in regular contact? Could he stay clean?
His jail buddy encouraged him. Marshburn says, "I never had a job before. I don't have a résumé. He said, 'You are your résumé. … You mediated a situation for me in prison.' "
Marshburn knows the exact date he started getting paid for his work: Nov. 26, 2013. It's been a big year for him. He was promoted to supervisor. He mentors younger people in his neighborhood and is studying to be an addiction counselor. At one time, parents kept their kids away from him. Now they want him to hang out with their children. He is 45, with three grown children of his own and four grandchildren, ages 2 to 5. And yet this is the first year he has had his own place to live. "I don't even want nobody to come over to my house," he admits with a sheepish grin.
Marshburn and his colleagues are the vaccine that, in Slutkin's vision, will inoculate troubled communities to violent outbreaks. This year, Safe Streets has mediated 685 conflicts in Baltimore, with 624 of them deemed "likely" or "very likely" to have resulted in a shooting. But that didn't happen.
The program can't prevent every act of violence. As I pack up to leave, the crew starts talking about a recent arrest in which a mother called police when she found her son "wrapping up a body in the basement." They don't offer more detail.
Barksdale disappears into the back office to find out more, then bellows in a deep bass voice, "Oh, my God! I knew it! I know all three of them." He stands in the doorway, remembers I'm there, and shuts the door, yelling a bit more before emerging, calmer.
I ask him to drive me back to the train station. I couldn't feel safer.