Program Employs Ex-Gang Members to Help Stop Street Violence
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — It wasn't that long ago that Dedric Hammond was causing a ruckus in Harlem and had a street name that signalled his demeanor and intentions: "Bad News."
"I was the guy you called when you needed something to happen," Hammond said.
But then bad things happened to him. In 2001, Hammond was shot in two separate incidents — twice in the stomach and once in the back. Then came an 8-year prison stretch.
Now, Hammond is back on the streets of Harlem. But this time as an ex-gang member trying to have a positive influence on the lives of young people as part of Operation SNUG.
Modeled after the successful Ceasefire Chicago program, Operation SNUG — guns spelled backwards — looks to prevent shootings and to disrupt situations that escalate toward violence. The statewide program, funded with a $4 million grant from the state Senate, will also target young people most at-risk to be involved in gun violence and provide them with mentors and resources to change their lives.
In Harlem, the program will be run by the New York City Mission Society. The group received a $500,000 grant and will focus its efforts on 127th Street to 145th Street between Fifth and St. Nicholas avenues, where many of Harlem's shootings and murders occur. Since 2007, the number of youth gangs and crews in Harlem has doubled to 40, and some say there are even more.
Robin Holmes, project director for Operation SNUG says the outreach workers will have to step into the teeth of violence in Harlem in the hopes of pulling young people out. They will be on call at night to step into escalating situations. That means they will be out on patrol and using their contacts to help quash the situations that lead to violence and offering potential shooters and their victims other options.
"In prison, I made a decision to make a change," said Hammond, who is a Christian and now goes by the handle "Beloved." "I decided that I wanted to save lives instead of destroy them."
Hammond will be part of a team of eight outreach workers, six men and two women, who will each have a caseload of 15 people aged 15 to 26.
"They are all what's considered credible messengers," Courtney Bennett, director of community and government relations for the New York Mission Society, said of the outreach workers also known as violence interrupters. "They've been in prison, they've been in gangs, they've shot guns, been shot at and maybe even been shot."
The group will partner with others in an effort to reach young people.
"They are going to people who are going down the same road they've been on but they know the path," Bennett said. "They can go sit down with a guy and say: 'What's going on in your life? If you feel you are in a situation, call me first.'"
Karim Chapman, 31, outreach worker supervisor, said he expects the outreach workers' past to carry a lot of weight with the young people they are trying to target.
"We have all made it out. We are all a living testimony that you don't have to live your life that way," Chapman said "Some of these young kids need that little bit of hope."
He should know. Chapman had positive influences in his life like the once-respected but now defunct Boys Choir of Harlem where he attended school. He carries a picture on his cell phone that shows him with Michael Jackson and Wesley Snipes after one performance.
But Chapman's father had HIV/AIDS and was in and out of prison. He says he simply didn't have the courage to resist the allure of running with a crew and selling drugs.
"I chose the streets," Chapman said.
His choice earned him eight years in federal prison on drug and money laundering charges. But now Chapman is a married homeowner who sees this job as one of the best ways he can give back to a community he once helped tear down.
"Can you imagine your mother or father making you sit in your room for eight years and only letting you out for one hour a day?" he asked a group of young people at an after school program at P.S. 194 Countee Cullen last week in an effort to explain what prison is like.
The event was organized by the Rev. Vernon Williams, who has tried to prevent violence in Harlem for years, in response to the recent murder of Jonathan Bells, 18, on Lenox Avenue.
"How many of you guys don't mind being different?" Chapman asked. "When your friend says: 'Let's skip school and go to the park,' I need you to be different."
Being different in Harlem is not easy. Especially for the kids SNUG is targeting who carry weapons. Holmes said many are afraid to put the weapons down because of peer pressure and fear that they will become a victim.
"If you are a person that has been bad, there are people out there that want to keep you bad," Hammond said. "It's a challenge, but I did it and other people can, too."