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BALTIMORE (AP) — There are only three rules at the Kids Safe Zone: Sign in, clean up after yourself, and read for 15 minutes before playing with the toys stacked around the space, a converted laundromat in West Baltimore.
Ericka Alston — who launched the center in the poor, crime-riddled neighborhood in response to the violence that followed the death of Freddie Gray — said she considered different rules: no fighting, no cursing, no violence. But she thought better of it.
"I said to myself: 'If we don't post those things, they won't think about those things,'" Alston said. "We hug them. We say positive things to them. We let them know how special they are. That's what's missing from their home. We made a decision to be the village."
It has been a bloody summer in cities across the country. Milwaukee surpassed its 2014 homicide total by mid-July. The nation's capital reached that milestone last week.
And in nearby Baltimore — where the spike in killing has combined with unrest over a national spate of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police — an especially daunting challenge has emerged, and produced two very different responses.
In April, officers arrested Gray, a 25-year-old black man, just blocks from where the Kids Safe Zone now stands. He suffered a critical spine injury in the police transport van and died seven days later. His death spawned protests that gave way to violence and looting, and the city's homicide rate began to skyrocket.
The police commissioner lost his job, and half a dozen officers were indicted in connection with Gray's death, but the violence continued. July was the city's deadliest month in 43 years. This year has seen 222 homicides so far, compared with 211 for all of 2014, with four months to go.
Community leaders such as Alston are mobilizing on the ground, with grassroots efforts to instill lessons of nonviolence. Across town, in a high-rise conference room downtown, Baltimore police are working on a very different message. Last month, the police department launched the war room, a physical and metaphorical effort to combat the spike in killings.
"We are going to war, and we're doing it collaboratively," State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said at a news conference announcing the war room's formation.
Inside, the war room is lined with monitors blinking with closed-circuit TV footage from around the city. Operation commander Lt. Col. Sean Miller sits at a table in the center of the room. He calls roll at 3 p.m. daily, checking in with each federal agency that makes up the task force: the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Marshals Service; and the Secret Service. The Police Department's homicide unit, Mosby's office and other law enforcement agencies also are represented.
In total, Miller said, more than a dozen organizations are involved, and the war room is the sole assignment for about 200 people.
"Everything is on the table," Miller said. "What used to take weeks or months is now taking days: formulating a plan, operationalizing that plan, and putting cops on the ground to attack it."
At a recent meeting, an ATF agent said criminals had robbed a warehouse full of semiautomatic firearms, and those guns were loose on the streets. DEA agents reported that wiretaps were up on the cellphones of two members of drug organizations. And an FBI agent narrated a web of connections between a recent homicide and other crimes: the victim himself was a suspect in two other unsolved murders, suggesting retaliation as a motive.
In the months since Gray's death, the city's systemic dysfunction has been thrown into sharp focus: the pervasive and decades-old problem of economic disparity, lack of job opportunities for young black men, tens of thousands of vacant housing units, and a dearth of resources for disenfranchised children. But the problem of violence has dominated the conversation.
Miller said the majority of violent crime is committed by a handful of high-level criminals — 25 to 30 of whom are identified as "war board targets." And 238 more people are identified as "top trigger-pullers" — persons of interest in shootings, or those with criminal backgrounds who've been shot and may be likely to retaliate, Miller said.
Despite those lists, Miller said the agencies of the war room aren't "declaring war on anyone." But, he added, "the mindset of declaring war on the bad guys is something we need to do."
At the Kids Safe Zone, Alston took issue with the word "war." She said she worries that combat language could embolden some to "soldier up" and strain the already tenuous relationship between the police and the public.
"Why not 'peace room?'" Alston said. "The terminology of war incites fight. I think our Police Department and elected officials want the very best for our community, but they can at times be disconnected."
Of all the neighborhoods in the city, West Baltimore has been disproportionately affected by the violence this summer. Its corners are flanked by whole blocks of vacant buildings, often wrapped in yellow police tape. The western district has seen 43 homicides this year — far more than any other district in the city.
In the heart of the neighborhood, just a month after the Kids Safe Zone opened, a group of children on an outing at a park had to be escorted back to the center after a man was shot and killed half a block away.
Elsewhere in West Baltimore, gang members are going into schools to talk to students about nonviolence. And the 300 Men March, an organization dedicated to promoting peace and empowerment, launched Youth COR, which pays young black men to undergo leadership training. Every Wednesday at twilight, the group takes an hourlong bike ride through the city, donning T-shirts that read: "We Must Stop Killing Each Other."
And inside the Kids Safe Zone, there is no fighting, no kicking, no cursing.
One morning, as children danced, played and colored, one boy complained that another had taken out a DVD he'd been watching. Alston took the boy's face in her hands and kissed his forehead. She pinched his cheek and asked him if he'd put the DVD back in and apologize. Without another word, he did.
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