NYC to Employ Ex-Gang Members to Curb Gun Violence

By Jonathan Zhou, Epoch Times

NEW YORK—The city will inject an additional $13 million into its anti-gun violence program, expanding it to the city’s most violent precincts, Mayor de Blasio announced Wednesday.

The Gun Violence Crisis Management System consists of community outreach and services that target individuals who are most at risk of committing gun crimes living in 14 precincts responsible for 51 percent of the city’s gun violence.

“The $13 million aims to prevent shootings before they occur, to solve problems in their infancy,” de Blasio said at a press conference at the Harlem Hospital Center.

The hallmark of the program involves the employment of ex-gang members to talk to, educate, and persuade at-risk individuals to refrain from gun violence.

De Blasio explained these are “violence interrupters, folks who have a history of involvement with gangs and went on to be peacemakers, find young people at risk, and defuse situations before they get out of control.”

Kiki Brown, an interrupter at Save Our Streets (SOS) Bronx, was praised by de Blasio as an exemplar of community-based crime prevention. Brown saw that three gangs were on a collision course, and spent the day of her birthday talking to members from the gangs, saving them from a potentially fatal confrontation.

“One dedicated trained person can prevent violence and save lives at the neighborhood level,” de Blasio said.

The philosophy of the program treats gun violence as a public health crisis similar to smoking or seatbelt use, where prevention occurs by changing community norms.

“This is a fundamental shift on how we’re dealing with gun violence,” said Council member Jumaane D. Williams, a co-chair of the Task Force. “There’s a coordinating group of agencies helping with this multiprong approach, it’s not just the NYPD.”

In addition to the Office of Criminal Justice, the program will involve the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Probation, Youth, and Community Development, and the City University of New York

The funding will also add more job training, mental health, and legal services, and expand the Match program, which provides Algebra tutoring to high school students.

“The Match program provides daily tutoring in algebra to high school students; it had led to a 44 percent reduction in violence in kids involved,” de Blasio said. “Once they see they can take on something that looks insurmountable, it gives them faith to go down a positive path.”

The $13 million adds to the $3 million in baseline funding the Task Force to Combat Gun Violence already receives, expanding the program from 5 to 14 precincts.

Street Credibility

Since taking office, de Blasio has has faced the challenge of keeping crime at bay while at the same time establishing the trust of minority communities. That trust has been strained in recent weeks following the death of Staten Island man Eric Garner in police custody.

“There is no, absolutely no trust between the police and the community; you get young blacks getting shot; there aren’t any convictions for those police officers,” said Shanduke McPhatter.

McPhatter is the founder and director of Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, a grass-roots organization involved in the type of violence interruption de Blasio mentions, although McPhatter said his organization hasn’t received funding from the city.

“The goal is to have the people out there and employ those voices to talk a person down from a retaliatory shooting,” said McPhatter, who was a past member of the Bloods gang. “Your past is something that gives you the ability to relate to them.”

Jose, a violence interrupter for Man Up NYC, had previously served an 18-year prison sentence. He asserts that trust is the basis of these outreach programs.

“The message needs to come from someone from the street who’s credible, who can say ‘I’ve been there, it’s not worth it.'”

These sentiments echo de Blasio’s comments on the merits of the interruption program, an opportunity for the mayor to cut down on crime without having to expand unpopular measures like the NYPD’s broken windows policing—aggressively pursuing minor crimes to pre-empt major ones.

“For someone in a gang, sometimes the only voice that’s relevant to them is someone who can speak from the same experience, only someone who’s been down that road can help them” de Blasio said. “[Violence interrupters] found their way back from the abyss, and they want to help others.”

The program works by having violence interrupters who “like firefighters, put out the fire, or fight,” identify the leaders of the groups involved, and refer them to the outreach workers, explained Sharon Charles, deputy director of the Center for Court Innovation.

The interrupters and outreach workers are paid staff recruited by the local organizations, which receive funds from the city.

The Center for Court Innovation runs an existing pilot program of violence interruption in the Crown Heights neighborhood. The relative decline of shootings in Crown Heights since the program’s introduction has been cited by the mayor as the basis for the program’s expansion.

A Successful Trial Run

A pilot SOS violence interruption program was introduced in the Crown Heights area in January 2010. In January 2013, the Center for Court Innovation published a study declaring the pilot a success.

The study found that between January 2010 and May 2012, the incidence of shootings declined 6 percent in Crown Heights while it increased between 18 and 28 percent in the surrounding neighborhoods, and 18 percent for Brooklyn overall.

Four outreach workers recruited 96 at-risk individuals in the neighborhood over the trial period, with each individual receiving 20 hours of one-on-one counseling. The outreach staff stated in the report “Testing a Public Health Approach to Gun Violence” that they had mediated more than “100 potentially violent street conflicts involving more than 1,000 individuals.”

The SOS campaign also organized 43 community events and 50 responses to shootings attracting an estimated 6,000 people, and distributed thousands of fliers and educational material on gun violence in the community.

The authors of the study said that the change in shootings were not “statistically significant in and of itself,” but notable when compared to the uptick in shootings in the adjacent precincts.

The authors also raised the possibility that the crime was “displaced” to areas around Crown Heights as criminals avoided areas targeted by the SOS campaign, but said it was unlikely because gun violence has increased in Brooklyn as a whole and that a prevention program was unlikely to push crime elsewhere as there was no increase in policing.

The anti-gun violence program coincides with an uptick of shootings in New York City as a whole. Shootings are up 56.5 percent for the week of July 28 through Aug. 3 compared to the same period last year, according to NYPD data, and up 12.1 percent on an annual basis, with 678 shootings so far this year.