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Anti-Violence Program Overhauled Amid Charges Workers Are Still in Gangs

By Jeff Mays | April 2, 2015 11:58am
 Operation SNUG says their new headquarters will better help them to prevent episodes of violence in Harlem.
Operation SNUG says their new headquarters will better help them to prevent episodes of violence in Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — An anti-violence program that uses ex-gang members to stop shootings, and is the model for a $13 million citywide expansion of the initiative, is being revamped after allegations surfaced that employees were still active gang members, DNAinfo New York has learned.

In the wake of the revelations, several members of the group, called SNUG, which is "guns" spelled backwards, have been removed, according to the Mission Society of New York City, which runs the program.

Remaining staff members who were being retrained and "new security protocols" are being put in place, they said.

Shawanna Vaughn, a worker at the Central Harlem organization, was placed under police protection following the shooting of a former SNUG employee.

"They are hiring active gangbangers," said Vaughn, 36, who has worked at the program as a violence interrupter and hospital responder for several months. "It needs to be shut down."

Vaughn said she made an official visit to the former violence interrupter and hospital responder in Harlem Hospital on Feb. 20 after he was shot on 142nd Street and Seventh Avenue, which is in SNUG's territory.

The shooting victim believed someone at SNUG was responsible for the gunplay and had allegedly made threats that caused employees to believe that violence might erupt, according to a recorded meeting with managers of the SNUG program obtained by DNAinfo New York.

The victim had been removed from his job prior to the shooting.

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment on the shooting.

When Vaughn went to Mission Society management with a report she made on the shooting, she claims it was swept under the rug.

"They told me to delete the report, that it never happened," said Vaughn, who fears for her safety.

When she complained to the mayor's office shortly after the shooting about what was happening at the Mission Society, Vaughn says she was fired. Several other Harlem SNUG workers have left the area out of fear for their safety, sources said.

The de Blasio administration acknowledged problems with hiring practices for the program.

“The City takes these allegations seriously and we have been meeting with Mission Society leadership to ensure appropriate hiring practices are in place and that the program is currently staffed to effectively and safely carry out its mission," said Sarah Solon, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

On the recording, two SNUG supervisors acknowledged that the former employee had been shot and that they had received notification from Harlem Hospital.

"He's bringing outside in. That's the danger," one supervisor can be heard saying.

The supervisors also listened as SNUG employees described how they felt their lives were in jeopardy because of the shooting, which they say they don't know the motivation for.

"It's only a matter of time before something...really, really bad happens to someone on the team," said an individual who worked as a SNUG violence interrupter, according to the recording.

"I'm feeling like I might have to go back to my old ways," the recording captured the violence interrupter, who is also a former gang member, saying.

The same SNUG member described how female employees of the program such as Vaughn felt afraid for their lives.

"Fear is not necessarily a bad thing," a supervisor says on the recording. "We hired them for their ability to go through s--t like this."

The SNUG worker promptly corrects the supervisor.

"No, we hired them because they were supposed to be able to have credibility and be able to do mediations," said the worker. "We didn't hire them to get ready for war."

DNAinfo is withholding the names of the SNUG employees due to safety concerns. Vaughn said she was afraid, but felt she had to speak out publicly.

"The Mission Society is acting like the criminals," Vaughn said.

Under current protocols, ex-gang members being considered for jobs are interviewed by a panel that may include Health Department officials, local police, social service providers and community leaders.

Employees must take a criminal background test and undergo screening to make sure they are not actively using drugs or still involved with gangs or illegal activity.

The Mission Society declined to make President Elsie McCabe Thompson or any other staff member available for an interview or to directly respond to questions.

In a statement, McCabe Thompson acknowledged that the Mission Society had "removed several individuals" from the SNUG program and has launched a search for several new staff members.

"An internal review identified areas for improvement in the program’s management and delivery of services, and noted a lapse in protocols," the statement read. "We value all of our employees and we take seriously any concerns about our model."

Robin Levine, a spokeswoman for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, did not directly respond to questions, but said the City Council, which funded the first SNUG programs, was "proud" of its efforts and "will continue to examine strategies" to reduce gun violence.

The Mission Society receives $1,469,216 in funding from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Health and Hospitals Corporation and the Mayor’s Fund, as well as private sources.

SNUG is modeled after the Ceasefire Chicago initiative where former gang members serve as "violence interrupters" to stop shootings by trying to convince gang members to go into mediation to resolve their disputes while trying to cajole them out of the gang lifestyle.

SNUG members also employ hospital responders who go to Harlem Hospital to speak with every shooting victim.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in August that he was launching a “Gun Violence Crisis Management System" to "prevent violence before it happens" that would expand the program to 14 neighborhoods with stubborn gun violence.

In addition to the Central Harlem site, the Mission Society also runs a similar program in East Harlem and The Bronx that was a part of the expansion announced by de Blasio last August.

The expansion effort began hiring staff in December and now has programs in neighborhoods from Coney Island to Long Island City's Queensbridge Houses.

City officials say studies show the model works in spite of the troubles taking place in Harlem. The revamping of the city's effort to reduce gun violence comes as the number of shooting incidents and shooting victims have increased by 11 and 10 percent respectively this year.

David Brotherton, a professor and chairman of the sociology department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies gangs, said there are risks associated with the model.

"I'm sure there are some dodgy people who have a seat in both camps," Brotherton said about the ex-gang members.

He added that the model is a worthwhile alternative to heavy-handed policing, but it should only serve as a part of the solution.

"Maybe you can stop homicides for five months but all the other problems of a community" that help gangs flourish, such as poverty and elevated school dropout rates, remain the same, Brotherton said.

"These programs act as a kind of salve to the system," he added. "No one is doing anything to structurally rethink these neighborhoods."