When the ‘Peacemakers’ Become Victims

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Still photo courtesy WBAL-TV11 Baltimore

The last several months has seen an uptick in shootings and homicides in American cities that has gained national attention. But one less-known outcome of this violence has been the threat to the lives of violence interrupters working to end cycles of violence before they claim more victims.

That includes my home city of Baltimore, which has seen the recent deaths of two Safe Streets workers: Dante “Tater” Barksdale and Kenyell “Benny” Wilson in Baltimore.

Safe Streets, modeled after Chicago’s CeaseFire program, has been operating in Baltimore since 2007, working to prevent, interrupt and reduce violence in high crime areas.

Dante “Tater” Barksdale. Photo courtesy WBAL-TV 11

The deaths of Tater and Benny highlight the inherent risk associated with violence prevention and intervention work―not only in Baltimore, but in other major urban municipalities across the country as well.

To honor the sacrifices of these unsung public servants we must continue to invest in and grow these programs, and similar innovative public health initiatives, in efforts to curb the violence spreading through our communities.

The deaths of these men, from the same gun violence they dedicated their lives to prevent and disrupt, are disheartening and alarming. Unlike law-enforcement officers, violence interrupters, many with a prior criminal history and having served jail time, are only armed with inspiration, hope, and experience as they go into spaces most would avoid (i.e., hot spots and gang infested areas).

Their transformative change over the years and trust as credible messengers amongst warring parties has made the communities they work in much safer.

Kenyell “Benny” Wilson. Still photo courtesy WJZ-13 TV 

The young Black men experiencing conflict in these communities are often generalized as perpetrators of violence. But violence interrupters know better, seeing them instead as potential victims of harm whose lives are of value.

And that makes their murder all the more troublesome and upsetting, threatening to undo years of positive developments.

When the lives of trusted community stakeholders are threatened, fear, anxiety and flight can spread. Residents may isolate and be less willing to speak up and speak out against violence in their communities.

The Safe Streets approach relies on community mobilization, outreach, public education, faith-based leader involvement, and criminal justice participation aimed towards youth and adults alike engaged in intense conflict.

What makes them unique service providers is their ability to offer alternatives to violence. In that way, they serve as a bridge to victims who may distrust law enforcement, and who may be considering revenge and retaliation in response to the loss of a friend or relative by taking matters into their own hands.

Even persons still involved in a life of crime have been swayed to put their gun down because of violence interrupter persuasion.

In Baltimore City in 2020 there were 335 recorded murders, with most offenders and victims being Black males, a reflection of the intra-racial nature of violence. Many researchers and policymakers, before and after the death of Freddie Gray, attribute Baltimore’s plight to systemic racism, economic inequality, barriers to health and mental health access, poverty, food deserts and other associated factors.

These factors are worsened by a deep divide between law enforcement and residents.

On April 27, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Baltimore entered into a Consent Decree in response to unconstitutional patterns and policing practices leading to violations that have further cemented distrust and ambivalence. This distrust has also created a perception amongst residents that poor Black high crime areas are not a priority for their government given the lack of change spanning generations.

Despite these deep-seated issues, too frequently the response to an uptick in violence is increased policing. Yet there is room for hope on several fronts that can provide momentum in addressing this problem of urban violence.

For instance, past research has shown over the years a reduction of violence in Baltimore because of public health approaches being implemented to address violence. While we cannot fund ourselves out of the problem, it is also clear that a criminal justice response absent a community centered public health approach will yield limited returns.

To address violence in urban communities we must first invest resources, financial and human capital, in the most violent and historically under-resourced communities in the United States.

President Joe Biden’s budget proposal in support of violence intervention efforts is a good start.

Second, we must consider urban crime control plans that reflect policing strategies aimed at chronic violent offenders, while at the same time supporting public health approaches that offer pathways to change and alternatives to violence.

Take for example the new violence prevention crime plan that Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott along with key allies introduced at a recent visit to my university. That plan centers on a public health approach to violence, community engagement and inter-agency collaboration, evaluation, and accountability that speaks to the city’s demand for a comprehensive response that is not police heavy.

Third, violence prevention interrupters, domestic violence advocates, community outreach workers, social workers, and victim service providers need enhanced protections. These individuals work within as well as outside of the margins every day and we must support and protect this dangerous, yet crucial work.

.We should also encourage our legislators to craft enhanced penalties for those perpetrators who target our peacekeepers, creating policy that establishes enhanced protocols for safety to inform practice.

Lastly, we must ensure that guidelines, strategies, and recommendations crafted for police reform are informed by organizations such as the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice to ensure transparency, accountability and community investment.

photo courtesy WJZ-13 Baltimore

A collective, collaborative approach that does not vilify the Black community or law-enforcement, but rather seeks innovative strategies and shared ideas that prevent violence should be the aim. To be sure, there have been Safe Street workers who have fallen back into old behaviors that have adversely impacted the program.

But overall, the program continues to grow and evolve in efforts to address the rise in crime and violence and consider ways to be more effective.

We may never fully appreciate the behind the scenes work of violence interrupters, because it is hard to applaud an outcome, such as the prevention of a planned shooting, that is not readily viewable for all to see.

Johnny Rice II

As a member of the academy, I will continue to prepare my students to consider not only careers in law-enforcement, the courts, and corrections – but also violence prevention employment opportunities that seek to disrupt the cycle of violence, end the school to prison pipeline, and address the premature death of young Black men.

Failure to support public health approaches such as Safe Streets will reduce opportunities to intervene in gun violence and other forms of harm and impede the development of safe communities that need it the most.

Johnny Rice II, DrPH, MSCJ is a Research Fellow in the Bishop L. Robinson Sr. Justice Institute & incoming Chair and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Coppin State University in Baltimore. He is one of several investigators conducting community-based research supported by the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund in efforts to learn more about factors that influence gun possession amongst Black men in urban communities between the ages of 15 to 24 years of age.

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