By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO

Lamont Crooks could be anywhere when the call comes. 

Somewhere in his West Baltimore community a conflict will reach a boiling point; a conflict with the potential to turn deadly, like hundreds of conflicts do each year in his city.

He knows it is coming. In fact, he anticipates it. 

Whether it’s the middle of the night or normal business hours, as the phone rings, only one thing is certain: lives and futures hang in the balance.

1968 Baltimore riots. (AFRO Archives)

“You never know what you’re going into,” Crooks told the AFRO. “Every situation is different depending on how far it has already escalated. Sometimes it’s just fights with little kids… or you could get a call where someone’s life has been taken.”

Crooks is not a soldier or a police officer. Nine men from his family have been murdered and he has spent nearly 27 years of his own life in prison. He is a first responder of a different kind. 

Crooks is a “violence interrupter” in the Belair-Edison community through the Safe Streets violence prevention program in East Baltimore.

And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury and Violence Prevention, he is one of the most effective tools in America’s other public health epidemic—violence. 

As calls to “defund police” grow louder each week, many wonder what community-based tactics have successfully worked towards maintaining safe, thriving communities.

With his commitment to mediation and de-escalation, relatability to at-risk clients, and connection to services through Safe Streets, Crooks is the first line of defense in preventing trauma, violence, and ultimately, negative interactions with the criminal justice system. 

“Our community has seen a 20 perent decrease in shootings and homicides in the year that we have been open,” said Dante Johnson, the violence prevention coordinator of Safe Streets’ Belair-Edison branch. The team is one of two sponsored in part by Living Classrooms Foundation.

An array of agencies and organizations sponsor Safe Streets locations in targeted areas across the city, like Cherry Hill, Park Heights, and Sandtown-Winchester.

Johnson says that decreases in crime, unemployment, violence, and health disparities in his community are often beneficial side effects of building strong relationships and investing directly into the community.

When he found out young men were selling drugs to pay for studio time, he used funds within the Safe Streets budget to build a professional recording studio. Neighborhood youths can now express themselves free of charge, mitigating their need to engage in risky illegal behavior. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, when supply ran low and corner stores priced his community out of necessities like masks and sanitizer, Johnson’s team passed out homemade sanitizer and ordered personal protective equipment for the community. 

From summer lunch and food programs to job training, the many Safe Streets teams throughout the city deter crime and conflict by meeting needs, teaching mediation strategies, and investing in their community. 

In serving the community, they develop the trust necessary for a phone call to take place before a life is taken.

“Nothing is recorded or reported,” said Johnson. “They understand that we’re just coming to stop the shootings and the killings from happening.” 

“It’s not about getting someone in trouble.” 

Johnson said his training through Cure Violence, a non-government organization that works to prevent trauma globally, helps him “look at violence as a disease and how it spreads quickly from one person to the next.” 

“It continues to spread unless someone gets in the middle of it and mediates it. We’re the cure to the violence. We go into the middle of it before it spreads, one person to the next.” 

Johnson told the AFRO the only thing lacking is the ability to fund a team that is working around the clock. Currently, team members are staffed according to data that reveals trends on when and where violence is taking place.

Living Classrooms Foundation reports that in 2019 there were 341 conflicts mediated in a city with over 348 homicides.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence is a problem best tackled when “prevention strategies address underlying causes such as low levels of education, harsh and inconsistent parenting, concentrated poverty, unemployment and social norms supportive of violence.” 

The 2016 CDC report “Preventing Multiple Forms of Violence: A Strategic Vision for Connecting the Dots” found that “more often it is the conditions in which people live and the inequities related to socioeconomic status, race, and gender that increase the risk for experiencing or perpetrating violence.”

Police departments, emergency responders, and elected officials are slowly becoming more progressive as they look to community programming, social workers, and mental health professionals to address issues they are often ill equipped to handle with handcuffs, CPR, or the latest zero-tolerance policy. 

In Dallas, social workers of Parkland Health and Hospital Systems (PHHS) have been leading the country with the Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team, or RIGHT Care, a different kind of first response that begins with a licensed clinician in the 911 call center. 

“With a lot of the responses to mental health calls resulting in trips to the emergency room, trips to jail, or the psych ward, the idea was put forth to come up with something more comprehensive that could potentially put patients in contact with better long term health care options,” according to Jason Evans, public information officer with the Dallas Fire and Rescue Department.

Evans said the team, created in 2018, was an answer to the call for responders to “address the more important need of behavioral health versus any kind of violence that may have precipitated the mental health emergency or any trauma that may have been the result of a response to a mental health emergency.”

The team consists of social workers, police officers, and members of the fire department who all have a role to play in de-escalating situations that all too often turn deadly.

“How we talk to them is different. We are trying to de-escalate situations. They know that they are not in trouble. We’re not there to take them to jail—we’re there to solve the problem,” said Kurtis Young, director of social work for behavioral health at PHHS. “We approach things differently. We come from a strength perspective. The social worker is looking at what’s going well to give confidence and springboard into the other issues.”

“The way the program is structured, the police are there solely for scene safety. It divides the roles the people who specialize in those areas,” said Young, when asked if programs like RIGHT Care help lessen the burden of responsibility often placed on police. “The paramedic can work on the medical side of things, the social worker can work on the mental health and social needs. That leaves the police officer to just focus on scene safety.”

Young said the program depends on connections to community resources, partnerships, and requires contracts between various agencies. Through an agreement with out-patient providers of mental health services in Dallas, patients are able to schedule same-day appointments, diverting people in crisis from jail cells and emergency rooms. 

“We can go to pharmacies to get medications filled. We can go to food pantries to get food on the table. We can arrange for new housing situations,” Young told the AFRO. “There are some folks who we don’t take to hospital or a clinic—we let them vent, we problem solve, and we just listen.” 

At large, Dallas has seen a 30 percent increase in admissions to the ER due to mental health calls. Data from the program shows that of the four zip codes targeted in South Central Dallas because of high incidences of mental health calls, three showed a more than 30 percent drop in emergency room arrivals.

Arrests for violence and drug violations are down eight percent, and quality of life crimes such as public intoxication and disorderly conduct decreased ten percent in the last year.

Young said that as the cities across the country find alternative ways to deal with mental health crises clogging their health and justice systems, it is becoming clear that comprehensive care is key.

“This is a good program for large cities, but even smaller cities with fewer resources can do a form of this program. It’s a scalable program that cities can commit to and it’s having an impact.” 

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems,

Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer