Mark Hughes in Baltimore: 'Wire' star joins real fight against crime

The latest instalment of our crime reporter's job-swap with his counterpart at 'The Baltimore Sun' focuses on community efforts to tackle the US city's crime problem

Mason puts his hand up to speak. He stands up and then repeats words he has said many times before: "My name is Mason and I am an addict." We are in a ramshackle building behind a supermarket at the corner of Park Heights Avenue and Cold Spring Lane in West Baltimore, the headquarters of the I Can't We Can drug rehabilitation programme.

"Hey Mason," the crowd shouts back. Mason begins to speak but then starts to cry. He is back at the centre for the first time since relapsing. Now he must explain his actions to the group. Once Mason has explained why he has returned to drugs, the group must decide whether or not he should be allowed to rejoin. They hold a vote.

Sat behind Mason is another man. He too has relapsed recently. His punishment is to wear a sign around his neck indicating his regression. "It's a tough-love programme," founder Israel Cason, himself a former heroin addict, explains. "The point is to help these guys develop as people."

The I Can't We Can programme is one of many drug treatment centres in Baltimore, a city where drug use, particularly heroin and crack cocaine, is rife. It is a community-run project where users are not given a drug substitute, such as methadone, but are encouraged to cure their addiction through spirituality. It is one of a number of initiatives set up by members of the community who realise that while Baltimore's problems end in murder they stem from drug-taking and selling and result in turning their city into the second deadliest in the US.

Another of these groups is run by Sonja Sohn, the actress who played Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire. Originally from Virginia, Sohn was so taken aback by the poverty and crime she saw during the five years she spent in Baltimore filming the show, she decided to stay and try to help.

She set up ReWired for Change, a project which takes about 20 youngsters who have been involved in crime and addresses the issues in their lives through the themes explored in The Wire. Sohn said: "We focus on high-risk young people who have been in and out of juvenile detention; young people that a lot of organisations and public institutions have thrown away or put in a basket marked 'too hard'.

"All of them have seen or been involved in shootings or have had people close to them murdered. They have experienced a lot of trauma. They love the show. They all think that the show is based on their lives, as if someone has come into their neighbourhood with a camera." Sohn put her acting career on hold for a year to get the project up and running and put much of her own cash into it. She said: "All my life I have been looking for my purpose and I know this is what I was born to do."

Sohn's interest in helping cure the city's ills is matched by others in Baltimore. Regular community groups meet and walk around their neighbourhood. One such group is in the Southern District, one of nine police districts in the city. More than 20 residents meet once a month and, with police officers, walk the blocks in their neighbourhood.

The idea is to create a visible presence to show locals who have caused a nuisance that the community will not stand for it. While the group accept that walking the street once a month is unlikely to stop more serious crimes, they do help create a hostile environment for dealers. Shannon Sullivan decided to start the walk after her car and house were broken into. She said: "We walk around and look for things like faulty street lights or alleys full of trash and report them to the police officers. If we smarten the place up then criminals won't want to stay here."

The Shomrim group in north-west Baltimore is more militant. Mostly made up of Jewish residents, they decided to start patrolling the streets of their neighbourhood in 2005 after a spate of 31 burglaries. Now they have nearly 50 men who, wearing uniforms, look for criminals in their area and report them to the police. They even have a police radio so they are aware of any incidents and suspects in the Northwestern District. They have a hotline residents can call if they see anything suspicious.

Ronnie Rosenbluth, the group's chair, said: "We tell people that if a crime is being committed they should call the police. But if someone is just suspicious of a person they haven't seen in the neighbourhood before they can call us. There was an incident recently where a woman called us because she thought there was a man in her house. We were able to send six guys round there to secure the house and make sure that if there was someone inside he couldn't escape until the police arrived."

Major Johnny Delgado, police commander of the Northwestern District, said: "They are the only community group that works directly with the police. We share information with them and they help us. Obviously we do not want them to take enforcement action. Basically they act as observers for the police."

The example of community and police working in harmony is not one emulated by all community groups. The Safe Streets group is comprised of 13 outreach workers, many of whom have served time in jail and have a long and violent criminal history. The group works in east Baltimore and tries to mediate in gang disputes before they turn bloody.

Safe Streets' motto is "Stop Shooting, Start Living" and, since they were established in June 2007, they claim to have intervened in 90 conflicts and have five ongoing ceasefires between rival gangs. The group is involved solely in preventing violence and does not explicitly attempt to stem the drug dealing.

Dante Barksdale is an outreach worker and the nephew of Avon Barksdale, upon whom the character of the same name in The Wire is based. He spent 10 years in prison on drug charges. He said: "Everyone in this neighbourhood gets real frustrated when a homicide occurs. But nine times out of 10, one of us will know someone who is linked to it. Either the person who got shot or the person who did it, or someone who knows one of them. We can get messages to people to stop the beef escalating."

Their efforts seem to be working. There were four murders in the year before the group was established. In the 22 months following their inception, there was none. But one thing which marks Safe Streets out among other community groups is their refusal to co-operate with the police. They aim to find out as much about shootings and murders as possible in a bid to speak to the perpetrators and victims and try to prevent any retaliatory attacks.

Gardnel Carter is the group's supervisor. He was convicted of murder and spent 20 years in prison. He said: "Our relationship with the police is that we are doing our job and they are doing theirs. One of the things about Safe Streets is that we cannot have a real relationship with the police because that would undermine everything we are trying to get done. People on these streets know us. Our credibility and reputation gets us in areas the police cannot get into and we can get information real quick. We cannot share that information. The programme would shut down if we helped the police."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us