City Council Funds Program to Stop Gun Violence in the South Bronx

By Patrick Wall on July 31, 2012 8:36am 

MOTT HAVEN — The City Council hopes to snuff out shootings in some of the city’s deadliest precincts by pouring $4.8 million into innovative anti-gun violence programs there, including one in the South Bronx that will hire former gang members to break up neighborhood beefs before they turn bloody, DNAinfo.com New York has learned.

The Council’s anti-gun violence task force, which was convened last September following a string of Labor Day shootings, will bankroll pilots in five high-crime precincts in Harlem, East New York; Jamaica, Staten Island’s North Shore, and the South Bronx.

In the Bronx’s 40th Precinct, which covers Port Morris, Mott Haven and Melrose, the Center for Court Innovation will use $500,000 in council funds to replicate its Save Our Streets (SOS) Crown Heights program, which employs former gang members and other locals with ties to the street to act as “violence interrupters.”

Gun violence in The Bronx has drawn special attention in recent days following two separate incidents when stray bullets killed young boys — including a 4-year-old who was unintentionally shot in the head while playing on a playground in Morrisania.

“This is not normal, this is not acceptable,” said Amy Ellenbogen, director of the Crown Heights Mediation Center, which runs SOS Crown Heights and is a project of the Center for Court Innovation. “We stand together to say we want to stop this plague.”

The Brooklyn program began in 2010 and is itself a replication of a Chicago initiative, called CeaseFire.

Both programs treat gun violence as a public health crisis, combing through police data to target “hot spot” areas, then speaking with residents to identify people likely to shoot or be shot.

“The idea is that gun violence is a disease,” Ellenbogen said. “So we have to figure out who is spreading the disease.”

In Crown Heights, trained staff with experience “on both sides of a gun” reach out to high-risk individuals, often ex-convicts or current gang members, and suggest ways to settle conflicts without violence, Ellenbogen said. They also shuttle between armed crews to broker peace deals.

Meanwhile, other staff work with local clergy and nonprofits to spread a message of nonviolence. They host barbeques, organize post-shooting rallies and vigils and pass out attention-grabbing signs, including ones that count the number of days since the last shooting.

From 2010 to 2011, the SOS Crown Heights outreach team mediated 51 conflicts involving guns in its 40-block target area, the group said. The number of shootings in that area shrank by half during that period, from 25 to 12.

Several Bronx leaders welcomed the group to the neighborhood and offered some advice for the formidable task ahead of it.

Rev. Bruce Rivera, of Christ Church UCC in Melrose, said that after years of working with local street crews, he learned the importance of winning over the ringleaders.

“If you don’t have buy-in from the leaders of the gangs, then you’re not going to get access to them,” Rev. Rivera said, adding that “the street code is silence.”

Maria Vega, the 40th Precinct Council’s recording secretary and chairwoman of the Betances Community Center in Mott Haven, called the group’s arrival “amazing,” and predicted that many teens would heed their message.

“If adults have open minds to actually listen to the teenagers,” Vega said, “the teens will respond.”

The Center for Court Innovation and SOS Crown Heights are just beginning to reach out to South Bronx stakeholders, Ellenbogen said. They must also find local office space and hire staff.

For the hiring process, Rev. Joel Bauza of Calvary Church in Claremont Village shared his counsel.

“It’s going to take community people to stop community people,” Rev. Bauza said. “It can’t just be outside entities coming in — the ghetto doesn’t work that way.”

He noted the long history of local anti-violence efforts, including a march his church has planned for August to rally residents against drugs and guns in the neighborhood. The campaign already has a name — “Save Our Streets.”

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