Story of a thesis (Part IV)

In the first part of this series, I told you about Baltimore and the challenges facing the Charmed City. The second part was all about the available data, and what those data told us, which is a lot. In the third part, I told you the story of some kids and how their social network was peppered with victims of violence (not just gun violence). In this part, the next to the last part, I want to tell you about who is doing what for Baltimore.

First, an aside. I held the thesis proposal seminar last week, and it went really well. The proposal seminar is something that we need to do before we go full-on into oral exams (departmental and school-wide). It’s an opportunity to refine the proposal a little bit more and get some questions from students and faculty. Let me tell you, there were a lot of questions. (Most of them were good questions. A couple were things I’d show later in the slides.) So I’m at the stage where I’m refining the proposal a little bit, just tweaks here and there. Then I’ll meet with some professors, some advisors, some mentors, and then move into the exams. I’ll keep you all updated, of course.

(I’ll also post audio of the presentation in a future “Talking Tuesday” podcast episode.)

So who is doing what for Baltimore? This question is as complex as any in this whole endeavor because, frankly, there is a lot of money in doing something — anything — for the City. From violence prevention to nutrition, to parenting and other topics, there is a lot to go around for whatever individual and organization who wants to take on the task of doing it. I’m going to break down the groups into four categories: Religious, Private, Public, and Mixed. But I’m also going to mix them into those categories without going program-by-program and making this a thesis dissertation all of its own.


There is no doubt that religion and religious organizations play a big role in the fabric of Baltimore’s society. This is because of the ethnic make up of the city as well as its history. In almost every neighborhood, you have a church or religious organization of some kind, and many of them are trying to improve the neighborhoods around them.

In fact, during the Freddie Gray unrest (or riot), it was religious leaders who went out to the neighborhood where there was most trouble and made a stand against the violence that was taking place. They then participated in discussions with the members of their churches to work on healing the city. This work continues still today.

A lot of the work that religious organizations undertake when it comes to violence is to bring everyone together in their faith and show more inclusion. There are also a lot of rallies, get-togethers, and prayer groups. You could say that some of their work is evidence-based, but not a whole lot of it. That said, there is plenty of evidence that feeling like you’re part of a bigger group — and that the bigger group accepts you — makes you less likely to get into trouble with or within that group.

If only all gang members went to church on Sundays and volunteered with said churches.


Private organizations are a little harder to pin down because they can be made up of one person or only a few people. The bigger ones are easier to identify and understand what they’re doing, what their goals are, and how they evaluate themselves. It’s the little ones that I’m going to have trouble in finding and evaluating.

As I stated above, there is money for you if you want to do something for Baltimore. That is part of the reason why people make up their own non-profit or join a bigger one. It can be akin to a job, and you get the perk of doing something for your community while you’re at it. Yes, it lends itself to some abuse, but I have a belief that people are generally good. (I’m an optimist.) Of course, a lot of people have a personal stake in wanting to make Baltimore better. Who among us wants to live in a war zone?

There are also the people and organizations who take a personal approach to preventing violence in Baltimore. They have lost someone to violence or have been victims themselves. Subjectively, I think these organizations are the most driven of the bunch. They have a deep-seeded sense of wanting to make things better, and that sense is at an organizational level… It’s in their DNA, so to speak.


The third group of organizations are the public ones, most of them spearheaded by the local or state governments. These organizations are, in my opinion, the most accountable ones. If you’re a church, you don’t really have to be accountable to anyone. If you’re your own group, maybe you’re accountable to the IRS on all the donations to it. But if you’re part of the government, you’re accountable to the citizenry and the politicians. Believe me, they don’t like to be embarrassed.

Let me tell you a story…

Safe Streets” is a program run by the Baltimore City Health Department. The purpose of the program is to send outreach workers into parts of the community in order to “interrupt” situations which could escalate to violence. In order to do this, the program uses ex-offenders and former gang members, people who know the streets and the players in those streets. These outreach workers then guide those they come into contact with toward drug rehab programs, mental health services, and other forms of assistance.

The program is a good one from the point of view of how it should operate. It has even been evaluated and found to be successful in reducing violence in the areas where it operates. There is even some effort to expand it to other parts of Baltimore. However, in July of 2015, several outreach workers at one of the sites were arrested and found to have guns and drugs with them (on their person) and in the Safe Streets office where they were supposed to be working:

“Two of those arrested are members of the Baltimore City Health Department’s Safe Streets Program. The program uses outreach workers, including past offenders, to go into the community to help to reduce violence. Police said they also arrested six other people in addition to the two Safe Streets workers at the 2200 block of E. Monument Street. The Safe Street workers were identified as Ricky Evans and Sherri Jordan. Most of them charged with drug possession after heroin and guns were discovered during a search which started with a 911 call for an armed robbery report early Monday morning. During the robbery investigation, police found a vehicle they were looking for parked outside the Safe Streets office. Police said three men came out of the building and went back inside and ran up the steps. Police said they ordered everyone outside and during searches of the building found handguns, ammunition, heroin and drug paraphernalia.”

This was a big black eye for the City of Baltimore and for the health department in particular. Right in the middle of a huge increase in gun violence, the very people entrusted to do something about it were part of the problem. The Safe Streets office where they were arrested was closed for a while and has recently re-opened with increased scrutiny of outreach workers and more oversight of their overall functions.

What would have been the outcome if this would have been a religious or private organization?


Finally, we have the mixed groups. These are the groups made up of different kinds of people who are accountable to — or paid by — different types of organizations. You may have a partnership between a church and the City, or between a private organization and a church… Or between all of them.

These are also tricky to understand because the different kinds of people within them have different expectations or standards to meet. For example, a city worker may be sent to work with a church with the expectation that they just do a job, while the bigger expectation of slowing violence around the church would be up to the church itself. Know what I mean?


To recap: My first thesis aim will be to look at the individual and neighborhood characteristics of Baltimore and how these explain the variance in gun violence counts around the city. In essence, how do poverty, education, drug use/abuse, and/or gang membership explain why one neighborhood sees 15 homicides and 30 shootings while another sees none (and others see numbers in between)?

The second thesis aim is to map out the social network of homicide victims through the use of different sources of data and to understand these maps. As was seen in Chicago, do small social networks in Baltimore account for a lot of the violence? And where in the social network do homicide victims fall? Are they on the periphery looking in, or are they surrounded by other people at risk, other victims, and/or other perpetrators?

The third aim is to take inventory of who is doing what in Baltimore and see if they intervene on the factors identified in the first two aims. For example, if aim #1 identifies that a lot of the counts of shootings and homicides is explained by low levels of high school education, are the programs in place that are trying to deal with gun violence intervening so that kids stay in school? Are they then making sure that high school graduates find a meaningful job after high school if another big predictor of shootings is unemployment?

I’m not going to fully and completely evaluate every single program. Rather, I plan to take inventory of them, of answering the question, “Who is doing what for Baltimore?” So a bigger version of this blog post is what I’m envisioning.


I was planning on doing a fifth entry into this series, but I think that it’s going to have to wait. I might write it as a stand-alone blog post on why strategies for intervention need to follow the evidence not only because it’s a good idea (and good policy) but because there really is no sense to just “going with your gut” on such an important issue. (Although, I’m a big fan of going with your gut on things. Some of my biggest accomplishments have been complete flukes.) So look for that in the future. For right now, I think these four posts have framed what I want to do… I hope they’ve framed it for you too.

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