City Spends $12M on 'Violence Interrupters' to Reduce Shootings
HARLEM — Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan Wednesday to pump $12.7 million into a strategy designed to interrupt gun violence before it starts in the city's toughest police precincts.
The money will be used to create a “Gun Violence Crisis Management System” to oversee the effort and provide services such as job training and mental health counseling. The money will also fund school-based conflict mediation programs and be used to train anti-violence providers.
The city already uses "violence interrupters" — usually former gang members or other ex-criminals — who use their street credibility to defuse situations in five precincts before they turn violent.
"The aim is to prevent violence before it happens," de Blasio said during a press conference at Harlem Hospital to announce the plan. "If we can stop violence before it begins to take shape that is the best thing we can do not only for our communities but the people who protect our communities."
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said the program, which began as a 2011 City Council pilot in high-need neighborhoods, "has now been expanded to provide comprehensive violence prevention and de-escalation services in 10 more at-risk neighborhoods.”
They are Brownsville, East Flatbush, Concourse Village, Far Rockaway, Coney Island, Queensbridge, East Harlem, Morris Heights, Eastchester and East New York. All are expected to be running by the end of 2014.
Gun violence remains a major issue in the city, but the problem is concentrated. Just 14 of the more than 70 precincts account for 51 percent of all shootings across the city.
"Gun violence devastates some communities much more than others," said Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and The Bronx.
While de Blasio said overall crime is down compared to this time last year with 26 percent fewer murders, shootings have spiked.
They are up 12 percent to 678 from 605 this time last year and the number of shooting victims is up 10 percent to 793 from 719, according to police statistics.
"The violence interrupters are a community-based solution, community members talking to other community members and convincing them that violence is not the right path," de Blasio said. "There's no one who can convince, particularly some of our young people, of the consequences of their actions more than someone who went down the wrong path then recovered from it."
There are few people who know that better than Dedric "Beloved" Hammond.
He started his own gang out of Harlem's St. Nicholas Houses when his street name was "Bad News." After being shot twice and spending eight years in prison, Hammond knew he had to turn his life around.
Since 2010 he has worked as a violence interrupter with Operation SNUG, which is guns spelled backwards, to stop shootings in Central Harlem. There have been times when funding issues have made it difficult for Hammond to support his young family. That's why news of the infusion of money excited him.
"This shows that people are taking this seriously," he said. "It shows that maybe people are beginning to understand how much people are tired of seeing their loved ones shot and killed."
But some other activists like Iesha Sekou, founder of Street Corner Resources, which teaches kids to avoid trouble through activism and provides career training, said she was concerned that the money would go to only the largest organizations.
"What about the groups that are in the crevices and in the trenches?" she asked Sekou.
And while interrupting the violence is a good plan, Sekou said there have to be programs that catch kids before they get to that point.
"We have to address the issues that lead to this mindset," Sekou said. "I'm hoping the mayor can make sure enough of that money goes into prevention."
Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, co-chairman of the Council's Task Force to Combat Violence, said the money will reach groups that are on the ground working on the issue. He believes it will make a difference.
"Make no mistake," Williams said, "this is a fundamental shift on how we are dealing with gun violence."