How 'Violence Interrupters' Are Trying to Stop Gang Shootings in Brooklyn
In a year that has seen murder rise in New York, locals are trying to mediate between gang members—before it's too late.
David Grant discussing gang violence at the Crown Heights Mediation Center in Brooklyn. All photos by Jason Bergman
I first got a sense of what it means to interrupt violence in early September, at a vigil for a slain teen in Far Rockaways, Queens. The boy, NeShawn Plummer, hadn't even graduated high school when he was shot on a corner late one night while hanging out with friends. He died two days afterward, and detectives eventually determined the attack was likely over a minor dispute Plummer was involved in—gang-related retaliation for an earlier fight.
While elected officials and local activists berated youth violence on the corner where NeShawn was killed—in a terrible coincidence, it wasn't far from where his older brother had been killed three years before—I was approached by two teens from a nearby group called Rock Safe Streets, which formed earlier this year and is dedicated to ending the violence in the neighborhood.
The first teen, almost the same age as NeShawn, told me that she joined the group because she was tired of what she had seen, and kept seeing. "The only time that we come together as a community is when something tragic like this happens," she told me. "But we need to take a deep look at what's going on here. Gun violence is only a symptom of the system.
"It hits home, though," she continued, "when a 16-year-old has to have his life taken away,"
The teens were out on what's known in these groups as a "shooting response." Within 72 hours of a shooting, fatal or otherwise, participants in the program will travel to a crime scene to spread their message by directly talking to neighbors about what had happened. That means stopping people passing by, and even cars in the street. Anything to get the word out that this violence is contagious.
Some see these shootings as sequential—a sort of chain that is interconnected, and interpersonal. One person shoots another, for whatever the reason may be, and a third person decides to retaliate. So the idea here is to stop the disease from spreading: Stop that third person from ever pulling that trigger, and stop the first person from ever picking up a gun. Squash the beef before it turns deadly.
Or, in other words, "interrupt" the violence.
Instead of policing, the approach relies on social capital. Inspired by Chicago's "Ceasefire" model, the hybrid formula of Minority Report-style pre-crime mediation and outreach programs has been rebranded as "Cure Violence," an alternative approach for New York's toughest streets. Not only it is resonating in an era all too comfortable with guns, but also in neighborhoods all too familiar with the sounds of gunshots. And the results of this modern urban project—whether or not it can effectively prevent gun violence—will have larger implications, as over the past two years New York City has experienced the first prolonged uptick in shootings since the end of the 1990s, particularly in a handful of Brooklyn neighborhoods.
In 2014, 14 precincts accounted for 51 percent of all shootings in the Big Apple; 49 percent of all shootings in 2015, as a recent Daily News investigation found, are gang-related—which is to say often the product of petty disputes. Meanwhile, by the end of the year, there will be the 17 "Cure Violence" programs in police precincts citywide.
Save Our Streets (SOS) Crown Heights in Brooklyn was the first to get off the ground, in 2009. When I asked Amy Ellenbogen, the program's director, what she made of Mayor Bill de Blasio calling New York "America's safest big city," she just sighed, responding, "Safe for whom?"
In the first-floor office of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, on 256 Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn, a map of the neighborhood is pasted to the wall. It's split into four geometrically identical quadrants, as the community's shape, like so many areas in New York, is visibly rectangular. Local institutions and mainstays are dotted. In fact, anything that serves a social function, from the nearby Albany Houses to the firehouse precinct on Bergen Street, is properly labeled.
With borders outlined, the map appears to be military ready—like Crown Heights is being invaded by some foreign force. And, in fact, it does show a block-by-block war of sorts, one that has long plagued this neighborhood that sits below the more notorious "Do-or-Die" Bed-Stuy: the fight against guns.
In many respects, Crown Heights is a battleground. From where I used to live, on Rogers Avenue, on the western edges of the neighborhood, you could almost pinpoint the Iron Curtain of hyper-gentrification moving further and further east. And that ever-encroaching line created a strange dichotomy, particularly because of what existed—or what didn't exist—on both ends.
In the west, you have restaurants, bars, and coffee shops popping up left and right, catering to the wealthy residents of the condos that has greatly overtaken the neighborhood. In the east, this glitzy development is met with a legacy of visceral urban plight dating back to the 1960s: low-income housing, racial tensions between the black and Jewish populations, and, most notably, gun violence.
Crown Heights—like East New York, Brownsville, and the South Bronx—is one of the few areas in New York City that still suffers almost every month from a shooting, either fatal or non-fatal. As of December 6, the 77th Precinct, where the Mediation Center's four quadrants lie, has already seen 29 shootings and 11 murders. It is perhaps telling that the area's annual J'Ouvert spectacle and the West Indian Day Parade, which celebrate the community's Caribbean roots, are pretty much expected to produce bloodshed. (This year, three people were shot, including an aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was killed.)
The deaths can't be attributed to something as simple as a gangland turf war. The on-the-ground organization's work complements the notion that violence here is carried out by a select handful of young men. In the past, you could broker a peace between two warring gang heads, and the killing would often stop—for a while. Now, the disputes are decentralized, more likely to bubble up on Facebook, and break out, as Jennifer Gonnerman wrote in the New Yorker, in the dark corners of housing projects.
Instead of two bombastic characters, you have several, each shooting and killing for their own reasons. So to defuse it, you have to target these "high-risk individuals" as many ways as you can. "It's unpredictable now," David Grant, an outreach worker at Save Our Streets Bed Stuy, a sister chapter, told me. "You don't get a warning."
Prevention in these groups is two-pronged: One is micro ("What happened?"); the other is big-picture ("Why does this keep happening?"). The first aims to halt those minor disputes before they reach a flashpoint, like the one that ended in NeShawn's death—the SOS model, as it's phrased, is "Detect, Identify, Disrupt"; its slogan is "Stop shooting, start living." The second is concerned with what Ellenbogen describes as "norm change," or shifting greater societal trends—socio-economic setbacks, gang culture, structural racism, mass incarceration—ingrained in the system the teenage girl mentioned.
For most of its short history, SOS Crown Heights concentrated on the former. Over time, though, it couldn't hide from the latter.
"I often hear the story where people say, 'Let's clean up litter for the day,' and then go to the river and they're pulling all the garbage out," Ellenbogen told me in her office. "But it just keeps piling up, and nobody looks upstream to see the big pollution plants. Really, you should be organizing to stop the pollution plant.
"I think this program, the way we designed it," she added. "We try to do a little bit of both."
With federal stimulus dollars, SOS launched six years ago from the offices on Kingston Avenue, with Ellenbogen—who had a long history of working with police brutality and local anti-violence initiatives within the Hasidic Jewish community—at the helm. At first, its purpose was to decrease violence and get people jobs. An added financial boost from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention allowed the group to hire more outreach workers and violence interrupters. (It started with just four.)
Then, at the tail end of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration in 2013, the city chose five grassroots sites to test the "Cure Violence" model in neighborhoods where it seemed as if the police were making little progress stemming the flow of guns. SOS Crown Heights was one of them. But the city's new involvement came attached with a key component that officials thought was missing: "wraparound services," or what you offer people once they detach from a life filled with violence. The answer is not as simple as finding them jobs.
The result has been an all-out attack on a vicious cycle that has been spinning for years, where employment is not a one-size-fits-all ailment. At her office, Ellenbogen rattled off the deeper issues at play here. "By the time someone is coming to us job-ready, they've been failed by the healthcare system, the education system; by housing, by law enforcement," she argued. "Maybe the foster care system, maybe the prison-industrial complex. And also, those systems have fed off of them, and they have a complete lack of trust in any sort of system operating for them."
So, for the past two years, as Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration and the City Council has increased their attention and funding (last year, nearly $13 million was included in the budget) for Cure Violence initiatives, SOS has tried to fill that gap. Mental health and therapeutic services, as life in crime-ridden neighborhoods is commonly linked to PTSD and depression, have been made available. And now, you're just as likely to see job readiness workshops in the office as you are mediation training.
When I entered the office on a recent weekday, it was quiet, save for staff members typing, but when I was leaving, a pizza party with high school students had broken out without me noticing. Presentations from community art organizations with internship opportunities were planned for the afternoon. The organization has also recently put on art installations—entitled Arts to End Violence—and parties, which, according to its members, have attracted large crowds in the neighborhood.
"We don't have a badge, we don't have a vest, we don't have a gun," said David Gaskin, the program manager of Save Our Streets Crown Heights, which was birthed at the Center. "So we have to use our influence, our credibility—who we are and who we were known to be at that point of time—just to work towards not even alleviating the situation, which is the main goal, but just bringing the emotions down. Because they're running high."
The norm change approach heavily relies on Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets, which trains teenagers in advocacy work after school. It is a long-term project; an effort to get kids, and eventually their friends, away from life on the corner. But the immediate focus is on the group's original MO: A city-led partnership with the nearby Kings County Hospital allows its members in, so they can speak with victims of gun violence, or their families, about how to prevent anything else from happening.
Of course, they're also out on the block.
"The Streets Team job is to definitely get out there to detect where there's abuse, and where the shooting is coming from," Gaskin told me. "To gauge neighborhoods to see how hot certain areas are."
Gaskin is a perfect symbol of how this process works. The Bed-Stuy native is a former gang member who served time in prison years ago. Once freed, he dedicated his life to preventing violence, but at first, only between his own friends. He eventually got dragged squarely into the project when a three-year-old boy was shot at a playground down the street from his home, a place he took his one-year-old often. Then, another infant was fatally shot in his stroller in Brownsville, because his father had beef with a local gang, Gaskin says.
Although no longer associated with his old crew, Gaskin feared for his son's life just by being there. Soon he was selecting the streets to walk down with a stroller, and was forced to travel to playgrounds in other communities to play with his son without fear. The feeling eventually got to him—"I felt like I couldn't sit in a local park with my kids," he said—so he joined SOS as an outreach worker.
If nothing else, he knew the block better than anyone.
"Kids are not looking at me as David, the SOS worker. Yeah, I'm an SOS worker, but they know me as Brave from Nostrand [Avenue]," he said of his nickname. "Coming through with the [SOS] uniform or without the uniform, that's what certain people refer to me. That's what they know me as. So it's just me, showing them kids who know me a different lifestyle."
As program manager, Gaskin helps arrange squads of young, high-risk adults, who are, or once were, deeply involved in this world of violence, to go out into their own backyards—the hot housing projects, the dice game dens—if they hear of any dispute brewing between people they know. Depending on the circle he or she is dealing with, mediation may require intermediaries, or it may not.
Regardless, these foot soldiers receive 40 hours of training in de-escalation tactics, and a significant portion of their work is networking done beforehand. "They develop contacts in the neighborhood, people who trust them," Ellenbogen explained. "People who know them really well, and will call them when there's something that's brewing, that's heating up, and will just be like, 'Hey you should know that so and so is pissed at so and so.'" (A few outreach workers told me they're used to getting phone calls at 1:30 AM.)
In these neighborhoods, law enforcement, of course, is regarded with a healthy level of distrust. After all, Operation IMPACT, the NYPD's last major anti-gun-violence initiative, was largely halted by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton because it deployed the highly controversial tactic "stop-and-frisk" tactic in high-crime areas. This, Bratton said, eroded the trust gap of police with the community, and was bad for cop morale. So sending in someone who has a reputation already is, in SOS's mind, a better way to defuse whatever's going on. Still, their mission is dangerous, and their identities are kept totally confidential to anyone outside of the organization. For this article, I wasn't allowed to know who they are, and was barred from any specific details of their undertakings. However, Gaskin told me that the beefs he encounters most frequently are over girls, money, and territory.
The group maintains what Gaskin described as a "respectful relationship" with the New York Police Department, which does its own anti-violence outreach, like gun buyback programs. The SOS will share crime scenes with the police, but not internal information, so as to avoid incriminating their own participants. And recently, a new community policing unit has reached out to the Center, looking to hear from its staff, they say.
Sometimes, though, the line between cops and violence interrupters has appeared blurry to those looking to join.
"One guy came in about a year or so ago, and he was introduced to me through a participant. So after like two days, I don't see him," Gaskin recalled. "Then he pops up, but off and on. Then he's totally around now. As the time goes on, I ask him what changed, what happened, and he said everybody thinks that SOS works with NYPD."
"That was the word on the streets for a little while," he continued. "Now he's a fixture in this office."
I reached out to the NYPD for comment, but have yet to hear back. However, in an editorial this week in the New York Daily News, NYPD Commissioner Bratton voiced support for the "Cure Violence" model, arguing that it "combines the pledge of intensive enforcement for crews who persist in violence with a genuine offer of assistance to those who change their ways."
At the SOS Crown Heights office, there's a running tally that ticks off how many days the neighborhood has gone without a shooting. The last time I was there, the number was 79—a solid stretch of calm in a neighborhood used to anything but. But it's tough to say exactly who, or what, caused it. The effectiveness of prevention is theoretical; in a way, you're measuring what didn't happen. So could it be a larger crime trend at play, or SOS's work on the ground?
Ellenbogen said the group looks to shooting numbers as indicators of their progress. But this, she admitted, isn't always reliable: an outlier situation, where four or five people are shot and killed in one sitting, can skew the statistics. Gaskin, on the other hand, said his benchmark is more human-to-human: how many backpacks they hand out at events, or how many teenagers sign up at one event.
Currently, several institutions are conducting field research as to how successful SOS has been, not only in Crown Heights, but nationwide, as similar programs have launched in cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Academic studies cited by a New York City Council task force on gun violence in 2012 suggested that "Cure Violence" models can decrease shootings by 16 to 34 percent per year. A more recent analysis from the Center for Court Innovation, which started the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center in 2002, compared Crown Heights to neighborhoods without SOS or similar outreach, before and after the programs were implemented. While shootings rose in those areas, the 77th Precinct saw a 6 percent drop in shootings; the report also later stressed that funding is directly linked to how well the program does.
So SOS, as it would seem, is winning the battle. At least for now.
The office on Kingston Avenue feels like it's out on the street. During the hours I spent there, people, both young and old, were always popping their heads in. Members of the community, Ellenbogen told me, come by all the time to show their appreciation. "Thank you, SOS, for saving my brother," one sign reads. "And hopefully my boyfriend soon, too." Another shows a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., surrounded by signatures from students. It reads, "I have decided to stick to love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."
At a roundtable discussion with SOS staff members—all of whom were older black men, with or without past gang affiliations—I asked if the strategy has ever failed. That is, did they ever come across situations where the the violence simply couldn't be interrupted and someone was shot. Gaskin said yes. While working with SOS, one man in the neighborhood had repeatedly returned to crime, due to personal issues, and was unable to be convinced that it wasn't the way.
"We kept telling him X, Y, and Z was going to happen," he said. "And then, on September 9 of this year, X, Y, and Z happened." But the death of the participant, to Gaskin and others, wasn't seen as a failure of their work, in particular. "[The community] failed as a whole," he argued.
"It was a sad moment," a man named Rudy Suggs, who was the subject of a 2012 New York Times story on the group, added. "But an enlightening moment for us. Because soon after, eight of his friends joined us, saying they wanted to prevent this from happening ever again."
These guys were self-aware. Having to single-handedly save someone, while simultaneously confronting larger themes of poverty and crime, is no easy task. "This job has its highs, and it has its lows," Craig Alexander, an outreach worker, noted, with a look of grief. And they know that progress will not happen overnight: "What we're asking people to go against is what, for decades, they've been trying to survive," David Grant said.
But they counted their victories with pride. Suggs detailed a Fourth of July weekend party, where over 50 members from rivaling gangs had gathered, ready to fight, but were soon sent home in peace by SOS members. Another member, Barry Wiles, recounted a Thanksgiving dinner held at the Center this November, where two formerly feuding gang members, who had tried to kill each other in the past, sat down to break bread.
"I grew up in this neighborhood, and these kids, I grew up with their parents," Wiles told me. "So to be able to make sure these kids don't have to go through what we went through..." He paused before continuing. "That's success to me."
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