To prevent gun violence, this police captain is trying a novel approach

Classes had just been dismissed at a Brooklyn high school for teens in need of a second chance, when a student named Devonte Lewis stepped outside and lunged at his opponent. Police said two teenage gunmen opened fire, killing 17-year-old Lewis.

Last April’s murder and the arrests related to it sparked an already simmering feud between Mr. Lewis’ grieving friends in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn and a group of rivals in New York. Flatbush to which authorities believe his killers belong.

“That’s when it blew up,” said Captain Derby St. Fort, commanding officer for Area 61, which includes Sheepshead Bay. “People get shot, people get caught with guns, and I feel like there’s a sense of urgency.”

Instead of taking the usual police approach of gathering enough evidence for a gang takedown when the dispute becomes intense, the Captain of Fort St.

He’s partnered with an anti-violence coalition and a neighborhood activist, who he asks to bring together 15 boys close to the dispute for weekly discussions led by a therapist at a community center. local community leads, paying them $150 in stipend to participate. Week after week, the boys kept coming back. In the four months since, none of them have been arrested with a firearm or in connection with a shooting incident, he said.

At a time when New York City is grappling with a worrying increase in gun violence, this program represents a new way to reduce crime by making community-based anti-violence a part of the region’s crime-fighting strategy.

“We can tackle gun violence differently than we do,” said Captain St. Fort said. “We can directly contact the children involved.”

The show is a dramatic departure from decades of political tactics that actively respond to violence but rarely focus on preventing it. And it comes as Mayor Eric Adams, whose first weeks in office have been dominated by questions about violent crime and public safety, voiced support for a balanced approach. with this problem.

Presenting what he called the Blueprint to End Gun Violence last month, Mr. Adams described spreading the responsibility of addressing shootings to all agencies of the city government, while also empowering neighborhood anti-violence organizations that have been hampered by bureaucratic barriers and funding constraints. But Mr. Adams’ immediate plans also rely heavily on the police and on tactics that have been abused in the past.

In an email, a spokesman for Mr. Adams said the city is monitoring this and other programs focused on prevention to see how they can be replicated.

The importance of the city’s response to gun violence was highlighted Thursday when President Biden attended a strategy meeting at the New York City Police Department headquarters with the mayor, governor and other local officials.

Increased violence in New York has persisted for two years despite the fact that police have seized 25% more guns and seized a record number of illegal firearms – 6,000 guns alone by 2021, according to statistics. of Ministry. This dynamic has spurred those calling for a tough crackdown on gun violence against those who promote investment in softer approaches to tackling underlying social inequality. for it.

The show at Sheepshead Bay seems to have succeeded with a softer approach. Those within the cure have been identified through arrests and intelligence reports as close to the conflict in which Mr. Lewis was killed. But those same tools, Captain St. Can be used to identify and intervene in the lives of those who pose – and face – the greatest risk of violence, Fort said.

At a recent meeting, the room was filled with the bubbly energy of teenage boys as they enjoyed plates of Caribbean food – stewed oxtail, escovitch, rice and cabbage – and high school design their own. (“No elderly allowed” – defined as adults over the age of 25 – are allowed; pretty girls are welcome, though.)

The focus is called healing circles, a group discussion led by therapist, Kenton Kirby. Captain of Fort St. listen and participate. They discussed a wide range of topics, including their experiences with violence and the police, and the gap between what they learned in school and the basics of adulthood.

“For young black kids, there’s not much room for redemption,” Mr Kirby said. “And to have a chance to create that framework is, I think, really powerful.”

At the end of the session, each participant was paid $150 – an allowance that organizers point out is less than a tenth the daily cost of keeping someone in prison. Organizers say the payments, which do not come from police funds, help keep the teenagers engaged and the money is less than it costs to handle arrests, destroy gangs and pay pay for officers who work overtime after a shooting.

Criminologists who study gangs and violence say the circle sounds promising because it allows police to intervene in violence with offers of help rather than threats of punishment, which can can build trust. But it’s too early to say whether it will have lasting effects or if it can be replicated to other neighborhoods or on a larger scale, they said.

“It’s one of those things that if it works – it’s amazing,” said Aaron J. Chalfin, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “But we don’t have a strong sense that it works yet.”

James Mulvaney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said he is skeptical that the program can change the ingrained attitudes of people taking risks with carrying a gun.

“If someone was carrying a gun, they were like, ‘Whatever, I can do my five years,’” he said. “And you’re saying, this is $150. Will that change everything? Is not.”

The organizers admit that it is difficult to recruit other young men. This week, two teenagers who briefly visited the circle were arrested in connection with a shooting at the Kings Plaza Shopping Center in Mill Basin that was unrelated to the feud that led to the murder of Mr. . Both were also arrested in November, authorities said.

Young men who participated in the circle said it gave them a place where they felt safe to speak freely without worrying about how they would be perceived. They agreed to speak on the condition that they be identified by their middle names.

Alexander, 18, says he doesn’t want to carry a gun, but he doesn’t want to get caught without a gun and lose his life. Five of his friends were shot dead last year, including Mr Lewis, he said.

“I would rather be caught with a pistol than my parents get a call that your son has been found murdered,” he said.

Rahmell, 19, said he wanted revenge after his cousin Lewis was killed. But the circle helped him express his feelings without doing something he might regret. As an aspiring rapper, he uses the allowance to pay for studio time to hone his lyrics and flow, he said.

“It helped me know that I had someone who cared about me,” he said.

Dana Rachlin, CEO of We build blocks, the campaign behind the circle, says the strategy is both effective and relatively cheap. The program cost $30,000 over 16 weeks and has been funded by private donations since a grant from the New York City Housing Authority ran out in December, she said. By comparison, the Police Department spent $600,000 refurbishing a nearby basketball court — a sum that could fund more than six years of healing.

Darwin Ellis, the activist who drew teenagers to the Sheepshead Bay circle, had known the boys most of their lives. He says many of their problems stem from being born poor, and notes that three of the teenagers have been caught stealing food from a local grocery store.

“All these kids need is opportunity,” said 30-year-old Ellis, who goes by the name Champ. “An opportunity that will help save a lot of criminals in the city. Just by getting the kids out on the street a few hours a week. Things like that can change a child’s life.”

Alexander was arrested last year during a traffic stop, when officers searched him and found a gun in his coat pocket.

His arrest opened doors that were previously closed to him. Previously, recruiters did not respond to his applications. But since then, he’s been recruited by ManUp!, one of the anti-violence groups the mayor wants to give more responsibility for to defuse potential violent conflicts. Alexander, who has two children, is also expected to graduate from high school this spring.

While he doesn’t feel safe, he says now the stakes are too high for him to take up a gun: “I’ve got a goal and a family that depends on me.”

Captain St. Fort said he doesn’t expect every commander to sit in therapy for three hours a week or for programs like healing circles to replace traditional policing practices. However, he said there are practical ways that area commanders can provide meaningful support to community efforts to prevent gun violence. Every time someone is arrested for using a gun, he said, he asks officers to refer that person to programs that help with things like food, housing and job training.

Barbara McFadden, resident leader of NYCHA’s Nostrand Houses, and formerly of Sheepshead Bay Houses, said the changes made by Captain St. Fort setting has resulted in notable differences in the way police and tenants of those developments interact.

In the past, when the police showed up to patrol, young men would run away. But when police arrived at her building recently, she said they were polite and greeted the young people who lingered and returned their hell.

“I see a comfort – an element of reliability,” she said. “That’s the tone he set, it’s respect.”

Chelsia Rose Marcius contribution report. To prevent gun violence, this police captain is trying a novel approach

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