Allies against city violence
Working alongside police, community-based violence interruption programs can help prevent crime
The Rev. Delonte Gholston pastors Peace Fellowship Church, a multicultural congregation in a predominantly black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. His friend, Olu Willams, was shot and killed a block away from the church in 2015. The shooter followed Williams home from the Deanwood metro station and shot him in the chest with a double-barreled shotgun. In 2018, Gholston’s nephew was shot five times. He was 16 years old. “God spared his life,” Gholston said. Gholston’s father was also shot and survived. The new year began with a triple homicide across the street from another D.C. church, Macedonia Baptist.
Violent crime in Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities grew worse during the pandemic. As cities search for ways to keep violence in check and consider alternatives to policing, some are turning to violence interrupters. These men and women from violent parts of the city are paid hourly to find out what’s going on behind the shootings and help de-escalate tension before it explodes in violence. But the programs are most effective when they work alongside law enforcement—although police relationships with community residents are often strained.
During the first year of the pandemic, homicides in D.C. jumped by 20 percent. The city hit 200 homicides in 2012, the highest count in 18 years. The city is on track to see even more this summer. The most violence happens from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Last year, the city witnessed 227 homicides. National firearm homicides broke records at more than 19,000 deaths in 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last year, the Justice Department announced it would award $444 million to communities around the country to support efforts to reduce violence, including violence intervention programs. On May 13, the White House released a statement encouraging cities and states to dedicate state and local funding to expanding “evidence-based community violence interruption programs” along with “accountable community policing.”
In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul pledged to provide more than $6 million to fund gun violence intervention programs across the state. Lawmakers in Indianapolis; Savannah, Ga.; and Knoxville, Tenn., have started or expanded violence interruption programs, and officials in Lake County, Ill., announced that teams of violence interrupters will infiltrate crime-ridden neighborhoods by late summer.
Back in Washington, D.C., Gholston reached out to religious leaders across the city and launched a loose coalition called Peace Walks. Volunteers walk, pray, cook, and engage residents on blocks and in neighborhoods where the shootings are happening. The group partners with local violence interrupter teams. When families come for a fish fry at the church, they introduce them to professional interrupters.
Violence interrupters connect people with the resources they need to help stop a shooting before it happens and broker cease-fires between feuding blocks—even if it’s just for one weekend. Last summer, interrupters brokered a 100-day cease-fire in Washington Highlands, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the district.
Credibility is key. These men and women understand the mindset of residents in violent neighborhoods. Many of the victims and perpetrators are young. “So many of them have been shot,” Gholston said. “They’ve been traumatized by being nearly killed. So they feel like in order to protect themselves they have to carry.” Neighborhood residents who won’t talk to law enforcement are more willing to open up to an interrupter.
Smaller cities are also turning to violence interrupter programs. Advance Peace in Richmond, Calif., (population about 110,000) is working to address gun violence by rebuilding trust. “Because they’ve had such poor relationships with the public system, and with the community, they don’t trust anybody,” founder DeVone Boggan said. The program encourages participants to think about life goals, sometimes for the first time, and learn how to engage with society beyond merely surviving a neighborhood.
Long-term results are difficult to gauge because many programs lack the resources and infrastructure that they need. “Many of these violence interrupters are just community members who have a passion to help minimize conflict,” said Howard Henderson, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.
As a result, the research is “mixed, incomplete and very difficult to do,” Jeffrey Butts, a researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Vox.
The Annual Review of Public Health reviewed the results of five studies that surveyed interrupter programs in multiple American cities with mixed results. One study connected a program in Pittsburgh with a rise in violence in some neighborhoods. In New York, interrupter programs apparently contributed to a decline in gun violence. John Jay College published a 2020 review of alternatives to police that described the evidence for interrupters as “promising but mixed.”
To improve their effectiveness, violence interrupters must work in tandem with law enforcement, Henderson said. Interrupters should identify crime hot spots—the areas in a neighborhood that experience the most crime—before police do. When they do, they can help de-escalate the situation before any crime is committed. “They have to work together. The police have to know who they are. And they need to know who the police are,” Henderson said.
But it’s a delicate dance. Intervention workers can lose their credibility with communities if people find out they are working directly with the police. When a neighborhood resident comes to an intervention worker to get rid of an illegal weapon, sometimes what is needed is a “trusted third party that doesn’t directly involve police,” Gholston said. “I think that trusted third party needs to be somebody in the faith community.”
In Danville, Va., a city of less than 100,000, Robert David works as the city’s youth services and gang violence prevention coordinator. In Danville, when outreach workers hear about a potential crisis, they begin a three-step process: call concerned individuals who are influential in the community and have access to those involved in the incident; visit schools to gauge the temperature of the community; and meet with the leaders involved in the incident to “hash it out.” They meet at a pizza parlor or a park—wherever the parties feel comfortable.
The program works with law enforcement. “We respect their job, and they respect ours,” said David. Every month, they meet with law enforcement, probation and parole officers, and others in the community to share information and coordinate how best to approach a conflict situation.
The police deal with hardened criminals, but individuals who want to change come to an outreach worker, said David: “We all work together to do a single job. It’s almost like an orchestra. We all are playing what we are supposed to and respecting boundaries, but at the end of the day, we have one common goal.”
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